You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Cannes Film Review: ‘Wrong Elements’

The victims of Uganda's Lord's Resistance Army speak up in novelist Jonathan Littell's lengthy but affecting documentary debut.

Geofrey, Michael, Nighty, Lapisa Evelyn, Dominic Ongwen. (Acholi, Kiswahili, Sango, English dialogue)

Official Site: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4466384/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1

For films that otherwise so vividly identified and evoked the trauma visited upon child soldiers, Kim Nguyen’s Oscar-nominated “War Witch” and Cary Fukunaga’s aptly titled “Beasts of No Nation” made a tactful point of avoiding geographical specifics in their otherwise unflinching portraits of Central and West Africa. So it’s among the most valuable virtues of “Wrong Elements” that it almost pedantically pinpoints the precise wheres and whens of its subjects’ suffering. With chunks of onscreen text and title cards, French-American novelist Jonathan Littell’s documentary exhaustively lists the dates and locations marking the rise and still-progressing fall of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Ugandan rebel movement that fed its ranks for decades by abducting and recruiting thousands of unsuspecting adolescents.

Why do such details matter? Simple as they are, they lend immediacy to events that could well be presented as a kind of waking nightmare — while giving viewers a contextualizing map and timeline underscores just how under-exposed Uganda’s crisis has been relative to contemporary atrocities elsewhere. If Littell’s lengthy, firmly structured but stylistically unadorned doc is sometimes a little pedagogic in its approach, that’s fair enough: It’s unpacking facts that, to many, may be horrifically new. Like Joshua Oppenheimer in “The Act of Killing” and “The Look of Silence,” Littell also invites his human subjects to re-examine violations they’ve already committed or endured. He’s either a less probing or less patient interviewer, however, since “Wrong Elements,” enlightening and moving as it often is, doesn’t amass equivalent moral tension.

“War is supposed to get rid of all the wrong elements in society,” said Acholi spirit medium and rebel leader Alice Auma in 1987 — a quote that opens the film, which is otherwise muted in tone, on a note of bitter irony. For “Wrong Elements” investigates an army that sought not to eradicate corruption, but to foster it across generations — as children, involuntarily indoctrinated into a culture of free killing, grew from victims into perpetrators. What, then, are the parameters of blame or sympathy for those who, taught early to murder without conscience or consequence, amass a kill list as unconsidered as it is long?

Spiritual instruction from on high is what the Acholi people largely accept drove Joseph Kony, then in his twenties, to found the Lord’s Resistance Army as rebellion spread across Northern Uganda following Yoweri Museveni’s divisive ascent to power in 1986. Over 60,000 teenagers were drafted into the LRA over 25 years, with only half that number escaping its clutches alive and receiving amnesty.

The most compelling material in “Wrong Elements” concerns a trio of friends and former LRA conscripts in the city of Gulu — motorcycle taxi drivers Geofrey and Mike, and impoverished mother Nighty — who return to the site of their now-destroyed base camp in South Sudan. Their accounts of the abuse sustained and carried out under the LRA’s control are startling to hear first-hand, with Nighty’s recollections of becoming a 13-year-old bride to Kony himself especially wrenching. (The LRA’s particularly violent mistreatment of female child soldiers is further underlined by reticent interviews with Lapisa Evelyn, a still shell-shocked escapee who alludes to her misfortunes principally through sense memory.)

Even the most hard-up childhood isn’t without moments of levity, however, and the doc finds disturbing poignancy in the friends’ giggling reminiscences of games played and jokes shared in the camp — mutual nostalgia not entirely erased by their mature understanding of their past’s horrifying context. “It was a stupid life,” Geofrey wistfully acknowledges, “but it was also interesting.”

Littell, best-known internationally for his hefty, Holocaust-focused 2006 novel “The Kindly Ones,” has a sensitive ear for succinctly evocative victim testimony. (“I thought they were cutting wood,” recalls a grieving mother whose children were slain by the LRA in her own yard. There’s no way to sentimentalize such interview material.) “Wrong Elements” has less direct impact, however, the further it gazes up the power hierarchy. In the latter half of the film, the trial of Dominic Ongwen — a former commander of the now scattered and depleted LRA, who emerged from hiding to face prosecution for war crimes at the International Criminal Court — is examined in methodical procedural detail, but with no emotionally galvanizing outcome or point of view.

Littell’s degree of official access is impressive, though it’s his incidental observations of rural community life that resonate most here, whether it’s a lone woman sorrowfully shelling pigeon peas or local menfolk garrulously chatting at urban traffic hubs. “Wrong Elements” is shot with a keen eye, but at 133 minutes, it’s edited with a rather less discerning one: Fewer filler images of rippling grass or parading ants would be a start towards tightening things. And while this man of letters, in his first stab at feature-length filmmaking, shows real awareness of what knowledge the camera can independently glean from its subjects, he occasionally pushes too hard for revelations. Asking reformed killers if they can “feel the presence” of their victims feels forced, even a little crass, in a film that successfully draws less coerced moments of cathartic insight from interviewees. As one survivor puts it with a sad shrug: “There is nothing we can do — the only way is to forgive and begin normal life again.”

Cannes Film Review: 'Wrong Elements'

Reviewed online, London, May 6, 2016. (In Cannes Film Festival — Special Screenings.) Running time: 133 MIN.

Production: (Documentary — France-Germany-Belgium) A Jean-Marc Giri, Thomas Kufus, Benoit Roland presentation of a Veilleur de Nuit, Zero One Film, Wrong Men production. (International sales: Le Pacte, Paris.) Produced by Jean-Marc Giri. Co-producers, Thomas Kufus, Benoit Roland.

Crew: Directed by Jonathan Littell. Camera (color), Joachim Philippe, Johann Feindt; editor, Marie-Hélène Dozo; sound, Yolande Decarsin, Yves Comeliau; supervising sound editor, Ludovic Van Pachterbeke; re-recording mixer, Ansgar Frerich; visual effects supervisor, Jean-Michel Boublil; visual effects, Automatk VFX; associate producer, Jean-Charles Morisseau; line producer, Tassilo Aschauer.

With: Geofrey, Michael, Nighty, Lapisa Evelyn, Dominic Ongwen. (Acholi, Kiswahili, Sango, English dialogue)

More Film

  • Ventana Sur: Paola Suárez Sets up

    Ventana Sur: Paola Suárez Sets up Jaque Content Mexico

    BUENOS AIRES — In an inspired strategic move, Argentine producer Paola Suárez has opened offices in Mexico, creating Jaque Content México, the Mexico City-located arm of Suárez’s production house Jaque Content, based in Argentina second city Córdoba. The news comes as Argentina and U.S-based GlowStar has acquired international rights on Jaque Content series “Public Relations,”the [...]

  • Fifty Shades of Grey

    International Piracy Ring Stole Over 25,000 Movie and TV Digital Files, U.S. Feds Say

    A five-member international hacking crime ring stole more than 25,000 files for Hollywood movies and TV shows and illegally offered hundreds of them for sale online, according to U.S. law enforcement officials. A federal grand jury in L.A. on Wednesday (Dec. 12) indicted five men, identified as residing in the U.K., India, Dubai and Malaysia, [...]

  • Dynasties BBC

    Bristol Is Home to Production Companies Known for Global Wildlife Projects

    Bristol, two hours west of London and known by toon enthusiasts as the home of Aardman Animations, also happens to be the world center of wildlife filmmaking and home to the top producers, directors and camera pros creating the influx of natural history shows that continue to grow ever more popular on TV screens around [...]

  • Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki

    Film Review: 'Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki'

    Hayao Miyazaki has threatened to quit before, so you can’t blame the “Spirited Away” director’s fans for being just a wee bit skeptical when Miyazaki announced in September 2013 that “The Wind Rises” would be his final feature. “But… this time… I mean it,” he insisted at a crowded press conference, unable to keep a [...]

  • Black Panther Meme

    To All the Pop-Culture Memes We've Loved in 2018

    Critical praise and awards are great, but in the Year of Gaga, it’s memes that are often the ultimate indicator that a song, film, or TV show has truly entered the pantheon of pop culture. Whether it’s from “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” or “A Star Is Born,” these moments from 2018 captured [...]

  • Downton Abbey Series Finale PBS

    Watch the First 'Downton Abbey' Movie Teaser Trailer

    Focus Features has unveiled a dialogue-free teaser trailer for its upcoming “Downton Abbey” movie, highlighted by soaring vistas of the majestic English country house. The footage, which debuted on Friday, features servants prepping the fictional Crawley family home for arrivals, along with shots of the stately furnishings. More Reviews Film Review: 'Never-Ending Man: Hayao Miyazaki' [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content