ActionFest: Kiddie Combat Drama 'I Declare War' Wins Top Honors

ASHEVILLE, North Carolina — ActionFest bills itself as the "film festival with a body count," but the movie that won its award for best picture this weekend had no deaths at all.

It did have plenty of action, however.

I Declare War, a Canadian film from Robert Wilson, who co-directed and acted as a producer, and Jason Lapeyre, who co-directed and wrote the script, proved to be one of the more intriguing and unique movies screened at the North Carolina festival, which ran April 12-15. (This reporter served as a judge for the competition.)

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War tells the tale of a capture-the-flag game played by a group of kids that goes a bit further than some of the characters expect. The movie employs elements of Lord of the Flies and is reminiscent of another Canadian movie, The Dog Who Stopped the War.

A kid-only cast captures the interior mindset of youngsters as they play war, depicting little skirmishes as full-fledged firefights, with sticks turning into actual guns and rifles and bullets ripping into trees. Other scenes play out against a background of military audio of the whr-whr-whr of choppers.

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The movie was shot in around 21 days in Scarborough, a suburb outside of Toronto. Working with the kids was the biggest challenge as well as the biggest inspiration, according to Wilson, who spoke on a panel after a screening two days before the movie won its award.

Lapeyre originally wrote the script 10 years ago, with Wilson and his producing partner Lewin Webb picking it up as a producer in 2011, putting it into production almost immediately. Wilson said the kids were allowed to improvise some of the dialogue because producers wanted to capture how kids of today speak. That meant allowing for saucy language not usually seen in a movie featuring 12-year olds.

“It felt real to them and so we let them go,” he said.

They also weren’t afraid to rewrite parts to fit the kids they found during the casting process. (One character was made of Korean descent, a heritage that plays a key aspect in a couple of key scenes, after the moviemakers were impressed by one Asian kid.)

The producers know they could face an uphill battle securing distribution. The language alone would garner it an R-rating in the U.S. Meanwhile, adults may not want to see it since it stars kids (and adults tend to prefer seeing adults as acting lead.)
And the material is outside the typical fantasy fare pitched at children by Hollywood.

Which is too bad, since I Declare War is an honest and thought-proving movie that doesn’t skimp on laughs and, of course, action. The festival’s jury, of which I was a member, appreciated its strengths and originality.

Wilson, downplaying the film's longshot chance of being picked up for distribution, said “This is the story that we wanted to tell.”

Email: Borys.Kit@thr.com

Twitter: @Borys_Kit