Wrong Elements: The act of remembering
by David González
- Writer Jonathan Littell directs his first film, a documentary about former child soldiers who fought with Ugandan guerrilla group LRA, which faces reality through their memories of the past
The opening scene of Wrong Elements [+see also:
film profile] is both evocative and unmistakeably symbolic: in the depths of the jungle, the camera travels through the dense vegetation, capturing flickers as unknown figures dart away and hide, never quite coming into full view. Significantly, what we can see is that these apparitions are not adults, but children and teenagers. French-American writer Jonathan Littell, best known for his novels including The Kindly Ones, an immersive exploration of one of the most horrific episodes in the history of humanity (the Holocaust), now takes on another chilling true story of politics and conflict. This time, the place is Africa, and the time more recent: his subject is the abduction of 40,000 children and teenagers by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), the Acholi paramilitary guerrilla organisation led by Joseph Kony and entrenched deep in the forest of Northern Uganda, in order to create a captive army. The documentary, Littell’s first venture into the medium of film, was unveiled to the world at this year’s Festival de Cannes, where it screened out of competition, and it now takes its place in the New Waves - Non-Fiction section at the 13th Seville European Film Festival.
As a focus for his study of these events, Littell selected three of the captured children to tell their stories. In their own words, we hear Geoffrey and Michael, two of the captured child soldiers, and Nighty, forced to become one of Kony’s wives at a very young age, describe their experiences. The director is equally committed to letting those involved talk about what they did during the time they spent in Kony’s power as he is to following their attempts to reintegrate into the simple, rural and contented society from which they were torn so many years ago. In their home village of Gula, Geoffrey and Michael drive motorcycle taxis, while Nighty is a devoted mother, raising the child conceived on one of the occasions on which she was raped by Kony. Littell mostly remains on the sidelines, leaving it to his subjects to draw the viewer in. Their thoughts and feelings are subtly and sensitively revealed, and after journeying back to Djebelin, where the base camp was located, they re-enact their daily lives from those years: hiding in the undergrowth when helicopters flew overhead to search for them; cooking when it was “their turn” or kidnapping other villagers, this time armed with clubs.
Interspersed with the recordings where the protagonists recount their stories are some immensely powerful scenes, including the exorcism of an alleged evil spirit from a young woman, also an ex-child soldier, as well as TV archive footage of refugee camps. All of this is presented enveloped in the grandiloquence and majesty of a baroque score composed of works by Johann Sebastian Bach — an effective if surprising stylistic choice.
The morally reprehensible nature of the protagonists’ actions is hinted at from the very beginning of the film, which presents us with a quote from the Acholi rebel leader and spiritualist Alice Lakwena, set against a dark background: “War is supposed to get rid of all the wrong elements in society.” This theme is developed, naturally, when the dramatic focus of the film shifts from “the innocent” to “the guilty” and we are given fly-on-the-wall access as one of the LRA’s leaders, Dominic Ongwen, is delivered into the hands of the international authorities. Although the subject matter might be reminiscent of other recent films such as The Act of Killing [+see also:
film profile] or Beasts of No Nation, Wrong Elements is sufficiently strong to stand out as one of the year’s most important films.
(Translated from Spanish)