The issues explored in this well-intentioned documentary, and the pedigree of the filmmakers behind it, suggest that “Children in War” should be an important and impressive work. Made by the award-winning team of Alan and Susan Raymond (“I Am a Promise: The Children of Stanton Elementary School”), premiering on HBO and confronting a topic that couldn’t possibly be more politically relevant and emotionally potent, “Children” purports to see the tragedy of war through the eyes of its littlest victims. But this narration-heavy docu tries to do so much that, despite some superior moments, it comes off as a superficial and unsatisfying glimpse at an enormously complex issue.
The Raymonds guide viewers on a tour of some of the world’s recent and ongoing conflicts, beginning with Bosnia and then moving to Israel, Rwanda and Northern Ireland. The causes and horrific consequences of the strife in any one of these regions would be enough to fill more than one feature-length film, so the primary challenge in tackling them all is to focus on a specific aspect of each. “Children in War” attempts to sum up the political context of each place it visits, and in order to do so succinctly, the film relies on Susan Raymond’s purposefully monotonous voiceover.
As a result, the children interviewed are not placed fully center stage; usually there’s time for only one or two answers from a child, and then it’s on to more expositional narration.
There are, nevertheless, moments that chill to the bone. In Rwanda, for example, a 5-year-old girl with machete scars on her face from when her parents were murdered and she was left for dead talks of the day she “was killed”; it feels like we’re speaking with a ghost. And the Raymonds gain access to some previously unexplored and fascinating territory: a Hamas school in Hebron, where the most impressionable Palestinian children are being given a militant education, and a prison camp in Rwanda where Hutu boys are kept for having participated in horrific acts against their Tutsi neighbors.
The views of the children give a strong sense of where the conflicts stand. Based on the evidence here, it will be a long time before Jews and Arabs will find lasting peace, while Northern Ireland seems ripe for a cease-fire. A society is on the road to harmony when a teenager can say, as a Protestant boy in Belfast does, “I’ve come down from being totally bigoted to being only slightly bigoted.” Such uncensored honesty signals hope for the future.
The segment on Rwanda stands out for the massive scale of the devastation, speaking of the 300,000 Tutsi children murdered in a span of months and of orphaned boys and girls living in the woods until they have the opportunity to join a militia. The most powerful visual reminder of the events is a church where a massacre took place. As a boy who survived by playing dead tells of what happened, the camera surveys the still-remaining skeletons. Ultimately, though, there are so many facets to problems discussed in “Children in War” that the filmmakers struggle to find a way in, and rely on generalizations that seem remarkably simplistic. Discussing the psychological scars of war, for example, Susan Raymond claims, “Because a child’s psychological development is incomplete, witnessing traumatic events can damage them even more severely than physical damage. The resulting psychological damage, know as post-traumatic stress disorder, can last a lifetime and is difficult to heal.”
“Children in War” would have been far more effective had the filmmakers recognized that this kind of empty commentary can’t compete with the profundity represented by the children themselves. Tech credits are generally fine, despite some heavy-handed musical components.