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From Child Soldier to Rapper: Local Filmmaker Documents Sudanese Boy’s Journey

Emmanuel Jal, hip-hop artist and subject of Karim Chrobog's film, "War Child."

War Child, which opens today at E Street Cinema for a one-week special engagement (tickets can be purchased here [both screening times are sold out]), documents the harrowing yet inspirational story of Emmanuel Jal, a former Sudanese child soldier turned activist and hip-hop artist. Jal’s rhymes speak of his experiences, and his music carries a strong message of peace and reconciliation. The film, directed by local filmmaker Karim Chrobog, follows Jal as he journeys back to Africa to reunite with family and friends and to visit the grave of Emma McCune, the British aid worker who changed the course of his life. After Hours chatted with Chrobog and the London-based Jal about the film.

Emmanuel, when did you first realize you could use music as a tool to tell your story? How difficult was it to get your music out to the public?

Jal: When I was in the UK, I was eating nice meals and sleeping in nice places, and it depressed me to think about the children in Africa. They were suffering, crying, and dying of diseases. Nothing was being done, and I thought, “Okay, let’s do this. I’ll tell our story through my music.” It was difficult to get my music out there because radio wouldn’t play it and television channels wouldn’t show the video, so I took it straight to the people—they can make things happen. That’s why I love live performances.

Music is a fundamental aspect in the film, complementing and often dictating the narrative thread. Was this the narrative structure you had in mind for War Child from the get-go?

Chrobog: Music plays a key role in the film because it’s what healed Emmanuel and allowed him to move beyond his traumatic experiences of being a child soldier. As much as we dwell on his past, Emmanuel today is a rapper and uses his art form to bring attention to very complicated issues such as genocide, the use of child soldiers, the oil conflict, tribalism, Darfur, and so on. Music also plays another important role in the film: It’s a reprieve for audiences to absorb what happens in the documentary rather than be overwhelmed with this very personal experience of watching Emmanuel’s life unfold on screen. From the very beginning we knew that music had to play a major role in the film, so in this respect our vision never really changed.

How did this project come about? Karim, did you know Emmanuel beforehand?

Chrobog: We’ve been working on War Child for nearly four years. When I met Emmanuel for the first time in London and learned about his astonishing life story—from child soldier to international hip-hop star—it was clear that this story deserved telling. His winning character and musical talent make him a compelling figure. Our screenings show that audiences are immediately hooked and emotionally tied to his personality. From a filmmaker’s perspective, he presents a unique opportunity to address complicated issues, such as the use of child soldiers, the war in Sudan, refugees, and so on, but through the eyes of a musician. War Child is not a conflict documentary that leaves audiences hopeless because they don’t know how they can transform the experience that they’ve gone through watching the film into concrete actions. The film presents real solutions. They’re the same ones that drive Emmanuel and serve as inspiration for his music and that have allowed him to put his traumatic past aside and become an active participant in helping his country move forward.

Emmanuel, watching the film, it becomes clear that you and your father have a strained relationship. Has your relationship with him improved since you last saw him?

Jal: I’m going to Africa in a few days [on December 10] and would like to work on improving our relationship. We still have a lot of family issues, but I think we’ll sort it out.

War Child also makes use of old footage of you as a young kid living in a refugee camp. In it, you’re asked about your hopes and dreams. I’m curious, what are some of your hopes and dreams now?

Jal: My hope is for people to know the truth about Africa and specifically Sudan. I hope that people see my movie, read my book, and hear my album. I don’t see myself as a star. I’m just a normal African writing down history. My dream is to build a school and call it Emma Academy. I believe in education. In Africa, children are learning under trees, and it touches my heart to know that they’re trying. I’m going to do everything in my power to make sure they can learn properly. I’m not going to sleep until the last brick is dropped.

The film is filled with very emotional moments. Is there one that was particularly difficult to shoot?

Chrobog: Yes. Emmanuel’s encounter with his sister was very difficult for us as bystanders to absorb, and we can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Emmanuel. We’re in Emmanuel’s Nairobi apartment to visit his family, and she reveals to him what has happened to her during the war and in the years they’ve been separated. She was raped multiple times while traveling in the harsh countryside between Sudan and Ethiopia trying to find her brother. In the same apartment, we interviewed a few other child soldiers who have all lost their families in the war. Their stories were equally heartbreaking.”

What are you working on next?

Chrobog: There are lots of projects that I’m currently developing. One of them is the story of Ibn Battutah, a 14th-century Moroccan adventurer who traveled some 75,000 miles for nearly 30 years. I’m also looking to work with a new foundation that’s trying to mobilize youth around the UN Development Millennium Goals through various multimedia projects. I have some ideas for feature films as well and hope to get to them soon.

Jal: I’m working on new songs, the campaign to build Emma Academy, and promoting the film, the book, and my album. It’s crazy and so much work but it’ll be worth it.

For more information on War Child and Emmanuel Jal, click here

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