From Childhood War to Hip-Hop: A Review of “War Child”

Kenneth Crab Apr 25, 2008

A Review of War Child, directed by C. Karim Chrobog, Discover, 2008

A must-see at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, War Child documents the unlikely, awe-inspiring odyssey of Sudanese hip-hop star and former child soldier Emmanuel Jal, who has translated his experience into a powerful advocacy of renaissance for his home country and a voice of redemption for the generation of ‘lost boys’ he became part of. Given its effortlessly epic nature, the film could have done without the input of experts on the Sudan crisis that brackets Jal’s tale. First-time director/producer C. Karim Chrobog lacks no lucidity, though, in gradually letting his subject reveal a struggle with the past.

The past is at once a bad trip down memory lane and a highly personal quest for peace. (Gua, meaning ‘peace’ in Jal’s native Nuer, was the title of his 2005 debut album.) Now in his mid-20s, the unassuming Jal cuts a magnetic screen presence: sad-eyed, soft-spoken and quiet-mannered, he exudes a soulful intensity that finds release through his music.

Jal was born as civil war took hold of Sudan, and moved from his home in the South to one of the UN-supervised children’s refugee camps in Ethiopia, a recruiting ground for the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army. Abandoned by his father after his mother’s death, he embraced being drilled to kill by the SPLA. As he remembers how excited he was at brandishing an AK-47 – the biggest gun he could handle at age 8 – and the hatred he felt toward the Islamic government troops, Jal marvels at his recent collaboration with fellow countryman and Muslim musician Abdel Gadir Salim.

After almost five years of service, Jal was one of 400 soldiers to desert the army and one of 12 to survive. Having recounted their grueling flight to a group of students in Washington, DC, he admits that telling his story depresses him, even renders him suicidal.

18 years later, Jal returns to Sudan, and resolves to heal his war-torn family ties by acting as a caring relative – a cool cat cousin rather than a parental role model – for youngsters who look up to him. Whether sharing his journey in song or championing the value of education over the hustle of the music industry, pledging solidarity with Sudanese orphans at a UN refugee camp in Kenya or sponsoring students at his old Nairobi prep school, Jal blazes a trail of knowledge as empowerment to safeguard the vast numbers of African kids still victimized by martial lawlessness.

Kenneth Crab will be providing continuous coverage of the Tribeca Film Festival (April 23 – May 4) on the IndyBlog.

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