Autobiographical Poetry

Review of Emmanuel Jal: War Child by Emma K., age 16

“I want to fly an airplane…I want a day that I can just live. My heart wants to learn how to fly an airplane.” These are the words of Emmanuel Jal, a Sudanese boy. He is speaking to a documentary crew who is shooting footage at a children’s refugee camp in Ethiopia. They had asked him what his hopes and ambitions were. As the camera follows him, his face is beaming with hope and joy, yet his eyes show deep fear and sorrow. Shortly before he had fled his home because of the turmoil; his mother had drowned when the ship they were on sank due to overcrowding. Only fifty of the hundreds of people on the boat survived. Emmanuel was one of them.

Now, many years later Emanuel is an international hip-hop star. He spreads his message of peace through music and tells his story – one of heartbreak and inspiration. War Child, C. Karim Chrobog’s directorial debut, follows the former Lost Boy of Sudan as he performs, speaks about his past, and returns to his homeland for the first time in eighteen years.

Emmanuel was one of many boys who were taken from their refugee camps and recruited to fight for the rebel forces during Sudan’s civil conflict of the 1980s and ‘90s. Their plight was horrific: often given cocaine to keep their energy up, the boys were taught to shoot and kill at a moments notice. Although some – including Emmanuel – escaped the army, they wandered the open country and frequently died of starvation. Emmanuel was one of the lucky ones; he was smuggled to Kenya by a kind British activist and later attended a top African school on scholarship. It was there that he discovered his passion for music.

This film is a well edited and crafted tapestry; it intertwines Emmanuel’s story with current information about Sudan, and unpretentiously inspires the audience to take action. Emmanuel himself is honest, modest, and humorous even after all he has undergone – his wonderment at how the Americans are able to make fun of George W. Bush without being killed is at first laughable but then thought provoking and even saddening. All he says has this same understated quality, and it does make the audience think.

War Child can be difficult to watch – footage of the war in Sudan is devastating, and some moments are simply gut wrenching (when Emmanuel’s sister talks about the abuse she endured, and when he is confronted by a young student asking whether or not he has ever killed anyone). Nevertheless, this is an important film for people to see; for many people Sudan is just a place on the map or a story in the news. This film makes those ‘stories’ real.

Emmanuel’s music is his outlet and what helped him psychologically move past depression and wishes for revenge. As he says, “I put my fight into music.” His songs are more like autobiographical poetry – one talks to his mother is heaven; another questions what would have happened if he had not been rescued. His talent is untainted by ambition; he simply speaks from his heart and in doing so leaves an impression on ours. This film is the same way.

After he has visited Sudan for the first time since his escape, Emmanuel stands at the rural airport. His face is full of glee as he snaps pictures of the countryside, does a happy-dance, and talks about his plans for building a school in Leera. Finally, he boards the airplane and flies away, having left us with but a snapshot of his life; yet it is enough to inspire.

Emma K.
May 12th, 2008

Emmanuel Jal: War Child
Seattle International Film Festival

Show times:
Wednesday, May 28th @ 7:15 p.m. @ SIFF Cinema
Saturday, June 14th @ 9:30 p.m. @ SIFF Cinema

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