Dir: Christian Karim Chrobog. USA . 2007. 94 mins.
Most hip-hop artists sell themselves on their school-of-hard-knocks credentials, but few rappers can have known the kind of hell that Sudanese artist Emmanuel Jal has endured - and lived to tell the tale. A universe apart from the usual rags-to-riches music biographies, Christian Karim Chrobog's documentary War Child - the title isn't given lightly - offers a portrait of Jal that is less focused on the man's music than on depicting the grim and complex political background to the story of this former boy soldier.
Jal's charismatic, intelligent presence, spare but effective concert footage, plus coverage of his long-awaited return to Sudan, make this functional but effective essay a moving and compelling achievement. The film's political passion, reflecting Jal's own, will give it wings on the festival circuit, especially where documentaries and human rights topics are foremost. While theatrical prospects are limited, television should welcome the film worldwide, especially in territories where Jal's recordings flourish.
Combining interviews with the singer and assorted political pundits, footage of sketches in the background to Jal's childhood. Born in the early 80s - he has never known exactly when - Jal grew up against the outbreak of the civil war between Northern Sudan, predominantly Arab, where the government has its seat in Khartoum, and the largely Christian south, which has long strived for independence.
Jal's father, an officer in the SPLA - the southern liberation army - sent his son on a boatload of children bound for Ethiopia, but the boat sank, killing most of its passengers, and Jal was forced to continue his journey on foot. He spent some time in a refugee camp in Ethiopia, and the film's most extraordinary archive material is 1987 footage of Jal there, aged 8or 9, poignantly and eloquently voicing his dreams of a better future.
Like many of his peers, however, Jal enlisted as a boy soldier for the SPLA and tells of the horrifying events he not only witnessed but participated in. After experiencing horrific deprivation on an attempted escape march, Jal was later rescued by a young relief worker, Emma McCune; later killed in a car crash, she became his surrogate mother, and Jal pays tribute to her in one of his most affecting songs.
Jal's quiet but imposing personality makes a compelling, even inspiring experience of what otherwise might have been a gruelling watch. He seems to have survived the unimaginable with sanity and compassion intact, not to mention wit.
The film concludes with Jal's attempt to found a school in his native village, while some of the experts interviewed - including ex-UN spokesman Ben Parker and Sudan specialist Ted Dagne - speculate on the future for southern Sudan and the uneasy prospects for averting further bloodshed.
The rough-edged visuals are handsome, although the colours seemed too vivid in the HD projection seen in Berlin. Jal's music - mixing US-style rap with hi-tech African inflections - offers merciful interludes amid the grim material, but the film's overall tenor is passionate and hopeful.
18 St Films
Interface Media Group
18th Street Films
Dal La Manga
Christian Karim Chrobog
Director of photography