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Photo credit: AFP

Photo credit: AFP

This a smart, informative free access article I just read on the paywalled independent journalism website Beacon. The author, Lagos-based journalist Peter Tinti, says that

The goal of this article is to contextualize Boko Haram. It is an attempt to fill in the gap between journalistic accounts and existing academic literature in a way that is accessible to readers who wish to better understand Boko Haram, its historical basis, and the current socio-political environment in which it operates. A list of non-journalistic works, to which this article is heavily indebted, is included at the bottom of the page.

For those interested in learning more about Boko Haram—and I presume many people are these days—Peter Tinti’s article is well worth the read.

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Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom

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[update below]

Saw it the other day. As I’ve said before, it’s hard to make a really good biopic. This one is acceptable. It’s engaging enough and with its strengths, though is not perfect. Squeezing the high points of a life such as that of Nelson Mandela into a 2¼ hour film would be a challenge for even the best of screenwriters and directors. William Nicholson and Justin Chadwick did a reasonably good job here—if one keeps in mind that it is indeed merely a biopic of a man, not a comprehensive treatment of apartheid South Africa or the ANC’s struggle in all its features and complexity. The film races through Mandela’s young adulthood as a lawyer and ANC activist and up to his 1962 arrest and the Rivonia trial; his early ’60s period is well portrayed, as are his 26 years on Robben Island and Pollsmoor prison. The film is particularly strong on Mandela the man, Winnie, their relationship, and how they began to diverge politically during his incarceration—of how Mandela was transformed from an “angry man” to one who “[came] to see that hatred and enmity were mimetic, a trap laid by the ‘evil’ other: fall into it and you and your adversary become hard to tell apart,” whereas Winnie moved in the opposite direction (quotes are from Stephen Smith’s fine essay, “Mandela: Death of a Politician,” in the January 9 2014 London Review of Books). The film is not a hagiography, as this review in The Economist correctly observes. Idris Elba (Stringer Bell in ‘The Wire’) is very good as Mandela, as is (the rather beautiful) Naomie Harris as Winnie. The secret negotiations between Mandela and the white regime in the late 1980s are a high point of the film, though the four years between his release from his final prison dorée and the 1994 election are superficially depicted. E.g. those not familiar with the history will be utterly confused by the reenactment of the Boipatong massacre and who committed it (the Inkatha Freedom Party, the name of which is not uttered). All in all, Clint Eastwood’s feel good ‘Invictus’ is a more satisfying film. But this one may be seen—and should be by anyone with more than a passing interest in Nelson Mandela and South Africa. And it was a commercial and critical success in South Africa, which is a recommendation in itself. Trailer is here, the NYT review—the best on Metacritic—is here, French reviews—mostly good, and particularly the Allociné spectateurs—are here.

On the subject of South Africa, I saw last month Jérôme Salle’s ‘Zulu’, a French-South African police action movie set in contemporary Cape Town (and based on a 2010 novel by French crime fiction author Caryl Férey). The film, which stars Orlando Bloom and Forest Whitaker “as two detectives uniquely scarred by their nation’s cruel racial legacy” (quoting Justin Chang’s Variety review), is extremely violent. This should be normal given the exceptional level of violence in South Africa, but still… The cops are black and white, the criminals coloured and white, and there’s an Indian in there, so the entire Rainbow Nation is represented, as both good guys and bad. French reviews are mostly good (and with Allociné spectateurs giving it the thumbs up). The reaction of Hollywood critics who saw the pic at Cannes was mixed. Trailer is here.

UPDATE: Uri Avnery saw the Mandela biopic and liked it. His review is here.

ZULU-Affiche

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Plot for Peace

P4P

[update below]

As the death of Nelson Mandela has been dominating the news the past two days, I should mention this fascinating 1½-hour documentary that opened 2½ weeks ago in two Paris cinemas (and that I saw in the nick of time, as it’s already gone; it wasn’t a box office hit, needless to say). It tells an “untold story” of how the apartheid regime in South Africa came to an end, the story being the indefatigable, behind-the-scenes effort of a French businessman and adventurer, Jean-Yves Ollivier, to broker an agreement to end the South African cross-border war in Angola. The effort achieved fruition in 1988, resulting in the mutual withdrawal of South African and Cuban troops from that country, which set in motion the process that led to the independence of Namibia the following year and, in 1990, the freeing of Mandela. Here’s the synopsis from the film’s website

THE UNTOLD STORY BEHIND HISTORY, a well-kept secret behind the world-wide icon: Nelson Mandela’s release was a Plot for Peace. For the first time, heads of state, generals, diplomats, master spies and anti-apartheid fighters reveal how Africa’s front line states helped end apartheid. The improbable key to Mandela’s prison cell was a mysterious French businessman, dubbed “Monsieur Jacques” in classified correspondence. His trade secret was trust.

In the mid-1980s, township violence raged in South Africa and one of the Cold War’s most vicious proxy conflicts devastated Angola. “Total onslaught” was writ large across the horizon. It was then that a foreign commodity trader with connections to all stakeholders in the region became the lifeline for top-secret contacts. To build trust, he organized a vast prisoners’ exchange. A year later, in 1988, South Africa’s forces and 50,000 Cuban troops began withdrawing from Angola.

In John LeCarré style, the land of apartheid and the front line states come out of the Cold War long before the Berlin Wall crumbles. Within fourteen months, Mandela walks out of jail – a free man and, soon, South Africa’s first democratically elected President.

For the first time, the protagonists of this high-risk venture – African heads of state, battle-tested generals, international diplomats, secret service operatives, and anti-apartheid icons such as Winnie Mandela and ANC leader Thabo Mbeki – recount the true story of how the front line states put paid to apartheid.

“Monsieur Jacques” leads this action-packed documentary through a rugged landscape of moral dilemmas. To some, such as Thabo Mbeki and militants for transparency, he was a sanctions buster, a secret go-between, a French spy. For others, such as Winnie Mandela and Mozambique’s former President Joaquim Chissano, he is a trusted friend and a man of bold vision. “I shake the hand I cannot sever”, says Jean-Yves Ollivier. As a matter of fact, he was bestowed upon highest honours by both the last impenitent stalwart of apartheid, P.W. Botha, and the first President of the new South Africa, Nelson Mandela.

As with most people not intimately connected with this aspect of the story, I knew nothing about Jean-Yves Ollivier. When I saw in the opening credits that the documentary’s historical consultant and scriptwriter was Stephen Smith—whose reporting and writing on Africa I’ve been following for the past 25 years—, I knew that it would be good. Jean-Yves Ollivier’s story is gripping. He was intrepid, knew Africa like the back of his hand, and had an ample carnet d’adresses—on the continent and in Paris, Washington, and other capitals. He is also a Pied-Noir from Algiers and in 1962, at age 17, spent five months in a French prison for politically related activities; he doesn’t detail these in the film but one may surmise that he had been in the OAS and had done things he may not wish to talk about. He recounts his first visit to South Africa in 1981, of the isolation of the country—both physically and as an international pariah—and how cut off the white population was from the rest of the world. He viscerally identified with the whites but knew that apartheid was untenable, that the system was doomed. As a Pied-Noir he felt it was imperative that South Africa not experience what Algeria had two decades earlier—with the calamitous demise of Algérie française—, that a transition to majority rule had to be negotiated and which would not result in an exodus of the white population. So he took it upon himself to persuade whites at the elite level and use his numerous contacts in the African frontline states to initiate a process of negotiation. The larger context was the Cold War and with Angola the principal regional theater. One of the leitmotifs in the discourse of white South Africans was the dread fear of communism, of what they saw as Soviet expansionism and their conviction that the ANC was part and parcel of this. This was also, of course, the view of the Reagan administration, and which Chester Crocker affirms in the film.

The interviews in the film—with the major actors on all sides—are exceptional, as is the narrative of the geopolitics of the region in the 1980s. An impressive job by directors Mandy Jacobson and Carlos Agulló, not to mention Stephen Smith. So if one is at all interested in the subject and has the opportunity to see the documentary, do so. The trailer, on the film’s website, is here.

BTW, Stephen Smith has an LRB blog post here on Nelson Mandela’s death. And here’s an assessment of Mandela’s legacy by Harvard anthropologists Jean and John Comaroff, published on the Harvard Gazette website.

UPDATE: Those who have seen the documentary—plus those who haven’t—will want to read the article by Piero Gleijeses, professor of American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins-SAIS, published on The National Interest website, on “Why South Africa loves Cuba.” (January 14, 2014)

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Nelson Mandela R.I.P.

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[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below] [4th update below] [5th update below] [6th update below] [7th update below]

I just learned of his death. He was truly un grand homme, what else to say? I first learned about him in the 1960s—before my teen years—, no doubt from my parents, who instilled in me a precocious indignation toward apartheid South Africa. And I most certainly mentioned his name in my first exercise at public speaking, at an all-day teach-in on South Africa at my high school—the organization of which I initiated—, on the 14th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre. I was living in Algiers in Feb. ’90 when Mandela was released from prison; as I didn’t have a television I went over to my neighbors’ to watch the event live. Couldn’t miss that one. And three months later, on precisely May 17th, I saw him speak, at the Coupole du 5 Juillet on the outskirts of Algiers. As tiersmondiste Algeria had been in the international vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement and Mandela had received brief military training there in 1962, just before his arrest and incarceration, he made Algiers one of the first stops on his triumphal world tour following his prison release. I went with my friend Philip Shehadi, the Reuters bureau chief (who was murdered in Algiers nine months later, in circumstances having nothing to do with politics), so got to see Mandela speak from the press section right up front. The arena was packed with some 10,000 mostly young people—the event was formally sponsored by the FLN’s youth organization, the UNJA, though few of those present likely had ties to the party or empty shell UNJA—, with the government officials and other big shots—including Abdelhamid Mehri and Sid-Ahmed Ghozali—in the tribune behind the podium. Mandela, who naturally received a rapturous welcome when he arrived, spoke in English and with no interpretation; as the English language was not understood by maybe 98% of those present, including the big shots and (Algerian) journalists covering the event—I noticed exactly one who was taking notes during the speech—, hardly anyone knew what he was saying, mais peu importe. The crowd cheered deliriously each time Mandela mentioned the word Algeria, even in passing.

Amusing detail: when recounting his 1962 Algeria visit Mandela evoked his fond memories of Krim Belkacem and Mohamed Khider, FLN chefs historiques and members of the immediate post-independence regime, but who later went into dissidence and exile, were assassinated by regime agents, and whose names were still publicly taboo in Algeria in 1990; silence from the youthful crowd—most likely not recognizing the names—and gêne visible from the VIP tribune. Another amusing detail: when FLN Secretary-General Mehri got up to introduce Mandela the crowd booed loudly—booing Mehri and the FLN, and with some chanting the name of FIS leader Abassi Madani; the VIP tribune collectively cringed, with Mehri shouting “uskut!” (silence!) to the crowd and Mandela looking bemused; someone leaned over to say something to him, likely to the effect of “uh, we have a little political problem in Algeria at the moment…”

Anyway, it was great to be able to see him en chair et en os. He was impressive, as could have been expected.

The mark of Mandela’s greatness was, of course, his role in presiding over the orderly, peaceful transition to majority rule, reaching out to the white minority, and his utter lack of rancor over his 28 years of incarceration. But while the transition was peaceful, it is not as if the preceding years were so. In addition to the ordinary, daily violence of the apartheid system, there was the added violence and repression of the minority regime against the majority as the contestation increased from the mid ’80s onward. And though the ANC—to its great credit—eschewed terrorism as a strategy, it did engage in it on occasion. The level of political violence was high in the final years of the apartheid regime. And the orderly transition was no sure thing even with Mandela leading it. In his book The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Sasha Polakow-Suransky writes of the hostility of the Afrikaner rejectionists, led by General Constand Viljoen, to President F.W. de Klerk’s negotiations with Mandela and the ANC. The rejectionists, heavily armed, were ready to launch an OAS-style terror campaign in 1994, which, had it come to pass, would have plunged South Africa into a heretofore unheard of level of violence, brought about a bloodbath, and upended the transition, resulting in a who-knows-what outcome but that would have most certainly been catastrophic. But as Polakow-Suransky recounts, Mandela, just prior to the ’94 election, invited Viljoen and associates to his Johannesburg villa and, speaking to them in Afrikaans (which he had learned on Robben Island), assured them that the white minority would have its full place in the new South Africa and that there would be no retribution or vengeance. With that, Viljoen & Co were disarmed, both figuratively and literally. They dropped their plans for a terror campaign and agreed to participate in the transition. If Mandela’s gesture was not the mark of greatness, then I don’t know what greatness is.

Too bad we haven’t had any Mandelas in the Middle East these past decades. Oh well.

UPDATE: Raphael Ahren, diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel, has an interesting and detailed examination of Nelson Mandela’s relationship with Jews, Israel, and Palestine. The lede: “Late South African leader had strong friendships with many in the Jewish world, but never forgot his allegiance to the PLO — or Israel’s support for the apartheid regime.”

2nd UPDATE: The Algerian website Chouf Chouf has a post on “Nelson Mandela et l’Algérie.”

3rd UPDATE: NYT columnist Bill Keller has a good commentary on historian Stephen Ellis’s revelation—if one can call it that—that Nelson Mandela had been a member of the South African Communist Party in the early 1960s, a “revelation” that US right-wingers are using as a gotcha to defend their own support of the apartheid regime. Keller suggests—though he could have driven home the point—that the engagement of Mandela and the ANC with the SACP was irrelevant as a guide to their eventual behavior in power. To say the least. Anyone who has spent time with African or Arab communists will note that their communist convictions rarely go beyond mouthing slogans. And, as recent history has demonstrated, communists can become capitalists on a dime if the circumstances are right. (December 8)

4th UPDATE: On American right-wing attitudes toward Nelson Mandela—present and past (and it’s always useful to recall past views one so ardently asserted)—, on how GOPers despised and disdained him—and with many in the GOP base still despising and disdaining him—, see here, here, here, here, here, and here. Liberals are naturally having a field day with this one, though in the interests of fairness and balance here’s one reasonable conservative commentary on Mandela’s passing.

5th UPDATE: Giving credit where credit is due in regard to American right-wingers and Mandela, here is Newt Gingrich’s response to the racists in his camp who got on his case for his eulogy. Gingrich may crazy on a lot of things but on this, he is reasonable and principled.

6th UPDATE: On Mandela having supposedly been a communist in the 1960s, here is what John Comaroff says in the interview I linked to in the following post:

It was [Mandela], for example, who, against the rather different position of the black power movement, argued most forcefully [in favor of] a … post-racial South Africa, a unified nation founded on the sovereignty of the people rather than sovereignty of the party. In that sense, he was a profoundly liberal thinker, in spite of the efforts of the Ronald Reagan and Maggie Thatcher regimes to construe him as a raving communist. He was never that at all, he was always a very considered — if anything, a Christian — democrat.

7th UPDATE: An informative Algeria blog has a post on “Mandela et l’Algérie: cinq mensonges et une révélation,” which corrects some of the errors or misconceptions regarding Mandela’s relationship with Algeria. One of them—a factual error I made myself above—concerns his 1962 visit, which was, in fact, to an ALN base camp just over the Moroccan border, not to Algeria itself, a country he only set foot in for the first time in 1990.

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The Hunt & A Hijacking

jagten-poster

This film from Denmark, which opened in the US in July, has left no one indifferent, at least not among those I know who’ve seen it. E.g. one cinephile friend, in an email, called it “a must-see film…reminiscent of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.” Another wrote that “Mads Mikkelsen was excellent in this film…I recommend highly.” But then one couple—and with highbrow tastes— “actively hated it”… Such contrasting reactions are probably inevitable given the subject matter: a middle-aged man—divorced with children—in a well-to-do Danish town, an upstanding member of the community known and respected by all, who works with the children in a nursery school and, out of the blue, comes under suspicion of molesting one—based on a tale the child recounted to the school director—, and overnight becomes a social outcast and kept at a distance even by his best friends, all while vehemently protesting his innocence (and he manifestly was innocent). US reviews of the film have been good on the whole, as were reviews in France, where the pic opened last November. Le Monde’s critic panned it, however—putting it in its films “to avoid” category—, prompting me to initially strike it from my “to see” list. But after a few weeks of its run I noted that the audience reviews on Allociné were particularly high. And as I have asserted numerous times, when in doubt go with the Allociné spectateurs over the snooty Parisian critics. So I went to see it and am glad I did. It’s an engaging film, well acted, and at no point rubbed me the wrong way. And it effectively depicts the Kafkaesque nightmare of a man falsely accused of one of the worst crimes possible short of murder. One comprehends why those accused of pedophilia, even if they are utterly innocent, contemplate suicide, or even end up committing it. I was reminded of the numerous day care abuse scandals/hysterias in the US—e.g. the one in Minnesota in the 1980s—and that ended with the defendants’ acquittal, and of the outrageous Outreau affair in France. Of course there are pedophiles out there but the issue here—the one treated in the film—is those who are falsely accused of this—by mythomaniacs or children under the âge de raison, invariably coaxed by adults—and of the collective hysteria that ensues. It’s a delicate subject, needless to say. I recommend the film. If one doesn’t like it, that’s okay. Chacun son goût.

Another Danish film seen recently was ‘A Hijacking’, about a Danish-owned freighter on its way to Bombay—and to the scrapyard after—that is seized by Somali pirates and held for ransom, with the hostage drama lasting for several months, the ship—having dropped anchor out in the ocean—being provisioned with food and water by boats from the Somali coast. The film alternates between the ship and the shipping company headquarters in Copenhagen, which has to deal with the situation and the pirates’ ransom demands. It is very effective in depicting both. On the ship—where the drama is seen through the eyes of the ship’s cook (played by actor Pilou Asbæk)—, one feels the despair of the crew as the crisis drags on and the sanitary conditions go from bad to worse, not to mention the hostages’ permanent state of terror, of being at the mercy of the kidnappers—the actors here are all Somalis, recruited in Kenya— who speak nothing but Somali, are totally inculte, their fingers permanently on the trigger, have a distinct lack of empathy, and little regard for human life. At the Copenhagen HQ, one equally feels the dilemmas of the company CEO (actor Søren Malling)—and the intense pressure which he is under—as he negotiates with the pirates—who have an English-speaking intermediary on board (he says he’s just the translator, not a pirate, but who knows?)—by satellite phone and fax, and their absurdly unreasonable ransom demands—and who has to decide when to follow or not to follow the advice of his hired negotiating expert, who is experienced in dealing with Somalis (played by Gary Skjoldmose Porter, who does this in real life; when it comes to cultural codes, Somalis and Danes—and Westerners in general, and even most non-Westerners—are not on the same wavelength). Again, the film is very effective on all counts. Slick, well done, and absolutely “realistic.” The way things were depicted in the film are no doubt the way they really happen. Kudos on this to director Tobias Lindholm (who, BTW, co-authored the screenplay of ‘The Hunt’ with that one’s director, Thomas Vinterberg). Reviews in the US (where the film opened in June) have been very good. In France too (both critics and Allociné spectators). But I won’t say that I enjoyed sitting through it, as I felt too strongly the hostages’ terror, the anguish of their families in Denmark, and the pressure on the negotiators at company HQ as they had to deal over several months with the crazy Somalis thousands of miles away. For me at least, the film was a little too angoissant. But that’s me. Others are less squeamish (which I know for a fact). So I recommend the pic, malgré tout.

As it happens, the lead article in last week’s New York Times Magazine, “12 Minutes of Freedom in 460 Days of Captivity,” is an excerpt of a book due out this month about a young Canadian woman’s hostage ordeal in Somalia (A House in the Sky, by Amanda Lindhout with Sara Corbett). And Slate had a piece on it a week ago, “460 days in a hell of captivity: An interview with Amanda Lindhout.” Given the high-profile advance publicity, it’s bound to be a best-seller. And à propos, Business Insider—a trashy but fun website—had a slide show recently entitled “The worst place in the world: See what life is like in Somalia.”

I actually have a personal relationship with Somalia, which I’ll write about at some point.

Back to movies: For the record, I saw a film from Iceland—a country that was part of Denmark until sixty years ago—last spring, ‘The Deep’ (en France: ‘Survivre’), by Icelandic auteur Baltasar Kormákur. The pic reenacts a real life story from 1984, of a young, corpulent fisherman (actor Olafur Darri Olafsson) whose trawler capsized and sank in the ice-cold waters a few kilometers off the Icelandic coast, and who managed to swim to shore. Having spent six hours in the water—and with the air temperature below freezing—his survival was literally a miracle, as lasting that long in such cold water was/is simply not possible for the human body. He thus became an object of medical/scientific study—in Iceland and the UK—, with doctors and scientists trying to comprehend how he could have possibly survived the ordeal. A freak of nature. But he was otherwise just a regular guy (though who, as a child, had lived through his town being buried in lava from a volcanic eruption; so for a simple country boy from Iceland he’d been through a lot). It’s not a bad film. Reviews are positive (here, here, and here; French here). I won’t recommend going out of one’s way for it but it’s good for DVD.

ADDENDUM: It occurred to me after posting this that there is a common thread in these three films, which is the protagonist—a man in his 30s-40s—going through a terrible ordeal that hits him out of the blue and that could end in personal ruin or death. He is a victim of circumstances—of larger forces—over which he has no control but that are linked to his employment, and that were a possible, if unforeseen, occupational hazard given the nature of what he does (and that he would not have contemplated when taking up his line of employment). Each man is saved (or vindicated) in the end but does not come out of the ordeal unscarred.

kinopoisk.ru

Djúpið

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sugar-man-poster

This is the film that won the Oscar for best documentary last month, beating out ‘The Gatekeepers‘. Having just seen it, I’m hardly surprised. ‘The Gatekeepers’ is a first-rate documentary, as I wrote last week, but there was no way this one was not going to get the Oscar. It is a wonderful, exhilarating film and that tells an absolutely amazing story, about Sixto Rodriguez, a great American singer who is practically unknown in America (including by me until now). Rodriguez, who is 70 years old, has lived his entire life in Detroit and been a manual laborer for most of it, became a musician on the side, and cut two albums in the early ’70s. His music is Bob Dylan-esqe and is every bit as good as Dylan’s. Even better. But his records did not sell, he got practically no publicity, and hardly played outside bars in Detroit. His career as a musician went nowhere and was soon abandoned. But his albums made it to Cape Town, South Africa, at the time, where his music became huge among progressive whites chafing under the chape de plomb of apartheid—and what was a repressive regime even for whites—, and inspired anti-apartheid Afrikaner singers. From the early ’70s to the mid ’90s Rodriguez’s albums sold maybe half a million copies in South Africa, where he was “bigger than Elvis,” except that no one in South Africa knew a thing about who he was. The country was subject to sanctions and boycotts, isolated from the rest of the world, and in the pre-Internet era there was no way for anyone there to get information on him. And Rodriguez knew nothing of his popularity in South Africa (and saw no royalties from his record sales). His fans in South Africa thought he was dead, having killed himself on stage in the US, so rumor had it. The documentary recounts how Rodriguez and his South African fans serendipitously found each other in 1997 and of his trip there the following year, where he was received as a big time rock star. It’s a great story and very moving. Here are the reviews by Roger Ebert and Manohla Dargis. French reviews are stellar, as is the word-of-mouth in Paris, where the film is still playing three months after it opened.

The film’s director is Malik Bendjelloul, who is Algerian-Swedish, and it’s a Swedish production (filmed in Detroit and Cape Town).

As for Rodriguez’s music, it’s great. My wife bought his CDs after seeing the movie and we’ve been listening to them.

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War Witch & Tabu

Rebelle

Two nights ago I watched a documentary reportage on LCP (French C-SPAN) on the Lord’s Resistance Army and its psychopath cult leader, Joseph Kony, which focused specifically on the accounts of soldier-slave children who had been abducted into the LRA, managed to escape, and regain their villages. The documentary was filmed in the southern Central African Republic, where the LRA has been operating (plus the DRC) since it was driven out of Uganda several years ago. A remote region of one of the most remote countries in the world (and with one of the most deliquescent states on a continent replete with such states). One can’t get much more off the beaten track than the CAR. One almost felt the dread of the film crew moving about the area with the LRA lurking in the bush—and despite the escort of CAR soldiers—, not to mention that of the villagers and the children. Unspeakable what happened to the latter at the hands of the LRA, and of the atrocities visited upon the former. Small wonder that Kony is at the top of the list of war criminals actively sought by the ICC in The Hague. US Army Special Forces, despite years of effort, have not been able to get their hands on him. Dismaying.

The subject of child soldiers is a heart-wrenching one. The children interviewed in the LCP reportage—aged 12 to 16—were nice, innocent kids when they were abducted into the LRA—when they were as young as 8 or 9—, where, by their own accounts, they killed innumerable villagers and participated in massacres. They had no choice. How does one deal with children who have been through this? Most of them seemed normal while interviewed but they’ve pretty clearly been psychologically damaged to varying degrees. The child soldier phenomenon has, of course, been present in many conflicts in the world—e.g. Khmer Rouge, Sri Lankan LTTE, Colombian FARC—but it’s mainly an African one. As it happens, I saw a feature-length film on the phenomenon a couple of months ago, ‘War Witch’ (French title: ‘Rebelle’), by Canadian director Kim Nguyen, and that is one of the nominees for best foreign film in the upcoming Oscars. The film is set in an unnamed African country, that I determined could only be the DRC, and, sure enough, that’s where it was shot (in the area around Kinshasa). It opens with the assault on a riverside village by an armed gang, who pillage, massacre, and abduct children, including the 12-year old girl and protagonist, Komona—played by the nonprofessional Rachel Mwanza, who won the best actress award at the 2012 Berlinale—, who is forced to murder her parents. If there were ever evil people in the world, the adult leaders of these armed gangs—who call themselves rebels, or revolutionaries, or whatever—are it. The film follows Komona—who is declared by the gang’s leader to be endowed with supernatural powers—as a child soldier, her budding romantic relationship with a veteran (age 14), an albino boy named Magician, and ultimately what happens to them. It’s a disturbing but powerful film, and important to see, as it deals with a tragically real phenomenon, of killer children but who didn’t choose to be that way. I’ve seen two other films in recent years on child soldiers in Africa—’Johnny Mad Dog‘ (shot in Liberia) and ‘Ezra‘ (set in Sierra Leone)—and would rate this one the best, or at least the one to see (if one wishes to see just one film on the subject). Reviews in the Hollywood press—which are positive—are here, here, and here. French reviews are here.

While I’m at it, I should mention another film I saw late last fall, ‘Tabu’, by Portuguese director-auteur Miguel Gomes, that was partly set in Africa (though which has nothing to do with child soldiers). The pic is divided into two parts. The first part is in contemporary Lisbon and focuses on an elderly woman into her dotage and who has a long-buried secret from her past. The second part is a flashback to the 1960s, of the estate in an unnamed Portuguese colony in Africa—the segment was shot in Mozambique—in which she lived and the revelation of the secret, which involved romance. I found the first part of the film confusing and not particularly interesting, to the point where I thought the pic was going to be yet another insufferable film d’auteur that critics love but causes walk outs in the audience. But it really came together during the second half in Africa. One’s attention was riveted to the recounting of the buried memory—and which was narrated, as this part of the film was silent (and, as with the first part, was in black-and-white).  The second part made the film. And my sentiments on this were echoed by a friend, as well as by several critics. As Variety’s critic put it, the film “starts off merely perplexing and winds up insinuating its charms.” Critics on both sides of the Atlantic have, not surprisingly, been gushing over the pic, e.g. here, here, here and here, and French reviews here. Variety’s critic again: “‘Tabu’ is nearly uncategorizable and strictly for patient arthouse crowds, yet those who wait are likely to come away still puzzled but deeply moved.” I agree. Highly recommended.

TABU

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