Being Sudanese and a former child soldier, Emmanuel Jal has many tales to tell, each one more horrific than the last. Judging by the treasure trove of found footage sprinkled throughout “War Child,” Karim Chrobog’s debut docu, he’s been bearing witness since early boyhood; whenever journalists visited the children’s refugee camp, they would ask for the 7-year-old by name. Now an internationally recognized rapper in his 20s, he sings his stories around the globe. Pic’s straightforward, inspirational music and message apparently resonated strongly enough to make docu a surprise audience award winner at Tribeca.
Chrobog’s film comes across as remarkably similar in substance and structure to Tribeca’s other “war child” docu, “Kassim the Dream,” with an equally charismatic figure at its center. Both pics follow their now-famous “stars” back to their respective homelands after long absences. But whereas Kassim was kidnapped and coerced into joining the very army that slaughtered his friends and family, Jal as a child deliberately signed up as a child with the rebel SPLA army to avenge himself on the geographically far-removed and religiously distinct governmental forces responsible for the suffering of his people. This creates a very different dynamic and a far less complexly layered film, with a more heroic, less conflicted main subjectcharacter.
Indeed, most of Jal’s traumatic experiences occurred either before or after he joined the army: the sinking of a boat full of children on their way from Sudan to supposed safety in Ethiopia; a long trek on foot to the refugee camp (while dodging hungry crocodiles); an escape march that turned into a nightmare of starvation, madness and suicide. While long shots of dark waters illustrate the first of these disasters on a merely conceptual level, Chrobog has found some devastatingly apt shots of desiccated bodies in the sand to more succinctly bring home the later horrors of Jal’s ordeal.
Chrobog details Jal’s rescue and adoption by Emma McCune, a British aid worker who famously married an SPLA general, only to die shortly after in a car crash, leaving Jal homeless yet again. Jal’s saga thankfully goes on the upswing from here, as the film describes his sponsorship to a premier Kenyan school and his subsequent rise as a singer and spokesperson. His return to Sudan after an 18-year exile serves to illustrate these more positive stages of his development as well as highlight his current humanitarian efforts.
Chrobog balances occasional glimpses of Jal’s concerts with footage of informal church and classroom sessions to stress the singer’s dedication to social causes and disinterest in personal celebrity. Though adding to pic’s uplifting message, this results in a somewhat one-note treatment.
Technically, pic’s most remarkable aspect is its seamless incorporation of numerous rare clips of the very young Jal, regaler of journalists and U.N. observers at an Ethiopian refugee camp.