In northern Uganda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, children as young as nine are forced into armed conflict. Traumatised and brutalised, the child soldiers find themselves participating in horrific massacres. Thousands die in this way. Congo-born director, Jean van de Velde, has brought this sobering subject to the screen in The Silent Army (2008). However, van de Velde’s decision to shoot parts of the film as if it were an action adventure sadly misfires.
Set in an unnamed east African country, Marco Borsato plays Eduard, a Dutch cook and owner of a restaurant. After the death of his wife, he has to raise his nine-year-old son, Thomas (Siebe Schoneveld), by himself. Thomas’s best friend and neighbour is Abu (Andrew Kintu), the son of one of Eduard’s employees. When the rebel army raid Abu’s village, killing his father, he is kidnapped and forced to join the child soldiers, controlled by the ruthless Michel Obeke (Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga) who gives the children new names and forces them to call him “Daddy”. Obeke rules his young army with an iron fist, terrorising the children into submission and brainwashing them into believing that their fellow soldiers are now their brothers and sisters. It is a monstrous parody of a “family”, and the children are often set against one another to keep order. Outside his stronghold, Obeke is referred to as “a madman in the jungle terrorising two million people”.
When Thomas learns of Abu’s disappearance, he persuades his father to go in search of him. Eduard sets out on a dangerous journey that takes him into rebel territory in order to find Obeke, who he has entertained at his restaurant. Interspersed with Eduard’s quest are gruelling scenes of the children and the barbarity they are reduced to in order to survive.
The Silent Army is both emotive and powerful and there is much to admire in Theo van de Sande’s camera work, from the stunning aerial shots of Africa’s dramatic terrain to the high-angle shots of Eduard’s jeep as he travels into rebel territory. The close-ups of the children helps to emphasise their vulnerability, and though working with a cast of largely inexperienced actors, van de Velde draws out some impressive performances – Kintu’s is particularly memorable.
There are, however, too many improbabilities in the plot of The Silent Army that mar one’s appreciation of van de Velde’s film: the ease with which Eduard is persuaded to embark on what is essentially a suicidal mission; the speed with which he tracks down the rebels; the various near misses sustained by Abu, supposedly to heighten the tension; the melodramatic ending, and the unlikely escape in a plane. However, some of these issues may have been caused by the radical pruning of the original film, Wit Licht, from its initial length of almost two hours, to just under 90 minutes in order to gain an international, arthouse audience.
Van de Velde should, however, be commended for tackling this difficult subject and actively contributing to the campaign against child soldiers. Whilst the end result is flawed, he sheds light on a particularly dark corner of the world. If you care anything for this modern tragedy, being played out in conflict zones the world over, then The Silent Army is worth a watch, despite its many faults.