The Silent Army -- Film Review

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CANNES -- "The Silent Army" is bedeviled by the same problem Edward Zwick faced in "Blood Diamond": How to tell African stories involving brutal conflicts and child soldiers without having white men come to the rescue of poor blacks. Since there is little black filmmaking tradition in sub-Saharan Africa other than South Africa and producers are convinced white audiences can't get into black stories unless whites get involved, we'll continue to get films such as "Blood Diamond" and "The Silent Army."

Indeed for all the good intentions of Belgian writer-director Jean van de Velde and an undoubtedly intrepid cast and crew, Hollywood genre filmmaking pretty much dominates "The Silent Army" with coincidences, contrivances and pure luck helping our go-it-alone white guy not only to rescue an African child but blow up an entire rebel army.

On the other hand, if producers are right and white audiences will more readily engage in a story about child soldiers if whites act as their eyes and ears, then "The Silent Army" stands a chance to shed more light on this outrageous human rights violation. The film, which is very well made, certainly is an attractive entry for other festivals and should enjoy limited distribution in many territories including, possibly, North America. Mark Borsato, a highly popular Dutch singer, plays Eduard, chef and restaurant owner in an East African town that is a bit close to a conflict area in a civil war. Following the death of his wife in a road accident, his 9-year-old son (Siebe Schoneveld) becomes close pals with Abu (Andrew Kintu), the son of a black employee. A rebel raid on Abu's village kills his father -- the boy is invited to take part in his father's murder -- then the son is kidnapped as a recruit for the rebel army.

Not fully understanding the situation, Eduard's son goads his father into locating his abducted friend and returning Abu to his home. Feeling guilty over his son's constant urgings, Eduard actually attempts to do so, closing his restaurant and traveling with his son no less into the conflict area to tour refugee camps in search of the boy.

He meets a committed -- and blonde -- NGO (Thekla Lawino) and a jaded photojournalist (Peter van den Begin), who both remonstrate against his foolish adventure. But the cook will not be reasoned with. Leaving the boy behind, he steals a jeep and heads into enemy territory where no one dares to go "without an army."

It is in the nature of this movie that the NGO quickly finds this Quixote quest romantic and noble while the journalist proves to be corrupt and vile. And no one seems willing to make the most logical argument against Eduard's mad adventure: His son, having already lost a mother, is most likely to lose his father. Then what will happen to the boy?

The kicker here is that the chef has cooked for nearly all parties involved including the rebel leader, the megalomaniac Michel Obeke (Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga), and the white arms dealer (Adrian Galley). Eduard manages to ask just the right questions and goes immediately to the camp that no one else in the country including military leaders can find.

The confrontation with the rebel leader and the cook's subsequent actions are pure nonsense. Helping him to defeat this army is the fact you can pretty much count the heads of the entire guerilla force and no one is much over the age of 17 save for its pompous leader.

A more nuanced approach to this worldwide problem of child soldiers would have given an audience a greater appreciation of the complex and difficult nature of the predicament. Van de Velde grew up on the Congo border with Rwanda so he seemingly is well schooled in this troubled area. But his film spends far too little time with young Abu to witness the brainwashing techniques used by rebels to win children over to becoming warriors. Indeed Obeke -- who is a standard-issue villain without any subtlety whatsoever -- does nothing to inspire loyalty and so clearly doesn't take care of his "sons and daughters," there is little reason for one of his young warriors not to shoot him in the back one day.

The production makes good use of the South Africa terrain and its cast of Dutch and Ugandan actors, many without any training. Cinematography by Theo van de Sande and sharp editing by Peter R. Adam keep the movie looking good and moving along at a brisk pace.

Section: Un Certain Regard
Production companies: The Entertainment Group Films, Honoris Causa Communication
Cast: Marco Borsato, Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga, Andrew Kintu, Thekla Reuten, Mieke Lawino, Seibe Schoneveld

Director/screenwriter: Jean van de Velde
Story by: Sandra Nagtzaam
Producers: Paul Brinks, Chris Brouwer, Richard Claus
Director of photography: Theo van de Sande
Production designer: Wilbert van Dorp
Music: Nick Laird-Clowes
Costume designer: Moira Anne Meyer
Editor: Peter R. Adam
No rating, 90 minutes
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