Throughout October we are running interviews with artists taking part in this year’s festival. Here, film directors Ariadne Asimakopoulous and Maartje Wegdam discuss No Place for a Rebel, a powerful fillm about a former child soldier in Uganda, which is screening at the CCA on Sunday 15 October.
How did you find Opono Opondo, the subject of your film?
Ariadne conducted research in northern Uganda in 2010 on reintegration and justice in the case of former child soldiers, who grow up to be both victim and perpetrators of atrocities. This research laid the foundation for No Place for a Rebel. In 2012 she and her friend and filmmaker Maartje travelled to Northern Uganda to research whether and how this topic could be made into a feature documentary film.
And although it is not difficult to find people in Northern Uganda who have returned from the bush because there are thousands of them, it was challenging to find someone who had grown up in the bush and grew through the ranks to become an adult commander, who had only just returned, and was willing to open up to us about very sensitive issues, for instance because of the stigma that they face in their communities.
You’ve said the way child soldiers are usually portrayed is ‘a world of cliches’. What do you think those cliches are, and what is the reality?
In a conflict we prefer to draw a line between victims and perpetrators so we can hold those who are responsible accountable. The reality however is often much more complex. Thus, presenting former child soldiers either as the passive victims of brutal violence, as the few brave survivors lucky to get a second chance, or as ruthless war machines wired to kill on command, reduces them to stereotypical concepts. This would be untrue to their complex identities and does not fully acknowledge their experiences. Moreover, the story of former rebels does not end with their return home. This film explores a new chapter: their present-day reality.
The documentary No Place for a Rebel comes right at a time when for the first time a former child soldier is being prosecuted at the International Criminal Court. He faces charges for the same crimes perpetrated against him. The trial poses difficult dilemmas regarding the prosecution of (grown up) child soldiers. Questions that apply to many others who grew up fighting in conflicts all over the world, for instance in Colombia, Afghanistan or Syria. Through this film we ask the question how we, as individuals, as a society and as the international community, can equip ourselves to acknowledge, act upon and do justice to the complex reality of victim-perpetrators.
What impact has making the film had on Opono, and yourself as directors?
Opono, just like ourselves, did not know from the beginning that the filming process would take three years in which we would return over five periods of time. We are really grateful to Opono for having had the courage to tell us – being two outsiders – his story. We don’t want to speak for him on the impact that the process has had on him, but we know that it wasn’t easy at all for him to open up to us every time wecame back for yet another shooting period as this included talking about very personal and sensitive issues. However, over the course of the years we do feel that the personal connection between us has grown and with that a sense of mutual understanding and trust. Although we feel that we did get a better understanding of the position in which people like Opono find themselves, the filmmaking process has left us with many more questions than we even began with in stead of providing us with clear cut answers on the issues raised. We believe this is reflected in the film itself.
What can be done to support people like Opono?
The film shows that Opono faces different interrelated challenges, varying from physical injuries and poverty, to psychological wounds of war. While some of these challenges are more of a ‘practical ‘ nature and might be addressed by vocational training or surgery, others are more complex and require long-term interventions, for instance psycho-social councelling. However, the funding and commitment of the government, (international) donors and organisations don ‘t often provide for long term and ‘soft‘ interventions of which results are intangible and difficult to measure.
Moreover, reintegration is a communal process and not just the responsibility of the person who returns from the battlefield. It is about (re)building trust and relationships. As such it requires a communal approach in which there is room for people to share, examine and discuss past (and often traumatic) experiences, or feelings of fear, guilt and even shame.
Why do think that having a place to call home is so important for people’s mental health?
In Uganda, donors and development organisations are now largely focusing their attention on economic development. For instance, as you see in the film, Opono is getting the opportunity to learn a profession and start his own business. However, in order to become a productive member of society it is necessary to also pay attention to the underlying psychological issues which, like we see in Opono’s case, often tend to be overlooked. One important aspect of mental support is of course professional psycho-social help. But we believe that feeling accepted in a community without fear of stigma and/or retaliation can definitely help feeling valued as part of a society and contribute to ones self esteem. On the contrary, we see in the story of Opono that not having this safe basis, a home where he feels he belongs and is accepted, is actually one of the psychological issues he is dealing with.
What other projects are you working on at the moment?
At the moment we are still working full time on getting as many people as possible to watch the film. By that we mean general audiences, but we are also working on a strategy to use the film as an advocacy tool and open the debate on what what is needed to advance the process of finding a ‘home’ for people who return from armed conflict, within Uganda but also in the international community. We found that the film can serve as a useful tool to spark debate on what reintegration means and for whom among many different audiences and advocacy levels, both on the ground in the communities and on policy making level.
Book now for the UK premiere of No Place for a Rebel, which takes place at CCA, Glasgow on Sun 15 Oct at 3pm. Directors Ariadne Asimakopoulous and Maartje Wegdam will join us for a Q&A after the screening.