Powerful subject matter examining experience almost too horrific to imagine trumps somewhat flaccid filmmaking in this first step into documentary for Franco-American author Jonathan Littell. Wrong Elements — the title comes from a double-edged quote by rebel spirit leader Alice Lakwena, about the culling effect of war on society — is admirable in its refusal to editorialize as it probes the moral, psychological and spiritual complexities of life for young Ugandans abducted as children to serve in the brutal Lord’s Resistance Army and since returned to freedom. But at two-and-a-quarter meandering hours, the shapeless film begs for a more streamlined focus.
The atrocious human rights violations of involuntarily recruited child soldiers and underage war “wives” in African conflicts has been effectively dramatized onscreen in such movies as Beasts of No Nation and War Witch, and onstage in plays like Ruined and Eclipsed.
Littell’s film is unusual in that it looks back with post-captivity hindsight on the dehumanizing experiences of a handful of subjects who were taken, aged as young as 11 or 12, from their homes and schools and forced into barbaric violence or sexual slavery. Having escaped their time “in the bush” with the LRA guerilla forces headed by still-at-large war criminal Joseph Kony, they have been granted amnesty by the government. Their reintegration into society is complicated by the pain of Ugandans who suffered devastating losses at the hands of the LRA. But their own confused feelings of remorse and atonement seem an equally significant obstacle in putting the horrors behind them.
Representing more than 60,000 adolescents abducted by the LRA over the past 25 years, the three principal subjects here are friends Geoffrey and Mike, now working as “boda boda” motorcycle-taxi drivers, and Nighty, who was abducted at 13 and “given” to Kony. She produced one child with “the big boss” (supposedly one of more than 100 he sired with different mothers) and a second with another commander. With as little coaxing as possible until some intrusive questioning of Geoffrey late in the film, Littell looks on as they discuss their capture and their time with the LRA, often returning to the scene of specific incidents.
The shocking enormity of their experience is undermined, however, by the lethargic filmmaking, particularly in the dawdling first 90 minutes. Already repetitious conversations are further padded out with lengthy shots of nature that range from the poetic (plains of undulating grass in the breeze) to the pointedly ugly (scavenger ants, squirming maggots). Littell and editor Marie-Helen Dozo divide the material into blocks with a generally indistinct chapter focus, each of them punctuated by copious screen text outlining dates and developments, and by bursts of sonatas by Bach and Biber.
Littell benefits from remarkable access to the official handover ceremony when ex-LRA commander Dominic Ongwen, who turned himself in expecting to receive amnesty, is placed in African Union custody before being flown to The Hague to appear before the International Criminal Court on war-crime charges. Speaking in his own defense, Ongwen points out that he was abducted at age 12, and had to learn to fight and kill in order to survive after being taught by Kony that he was following the one true path.
Like almost everything else in the movie, the section goes on too long. But footage of Geoff and Mike commenting as they watch coverage of Ongwen’s case on television raises interesting questions about accountability in a system that feeds its ranks by preying on young unformed minds.
Later sections that touch on the mystical aspects of former LRA members disturbed by the lingering presence of the dead are less involving, including a grisly cleansing ceremony involving a ritual goat slaughter. It’s in parts like this that the limitations of Littell’s sensitive but detached point of view are felt.
Likewise in the unremarkable footage of LRA defectors who have now joined the Ugandan National Army to hunt their former captors. The 2012 four-part HBO series, Witness, about contemporary war photographers, observed this role reversal with far greater tension, tracking an unpaid militia group pursuing LRA rebels through the South Sudan jungle.
There are lacerating moments here to be sure, such as Geoffrey’s conversation with a mother who watched her children get hacked to death right in front of her by LRA soldiers during a massacre in Northern Uganda that left a whole village almost empty. Her willingness to forgive is tremendously moving. And that encounter flows naturally into the film’s concluding notes about the challenges of healing and recommencing a normal life.
But a persistent nagging feeling runs through Wrong Elements of potent material being diluted by unskilled handling. Littell’s literary reputation (he won the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2006 for his Holocaust novel, The Kindly Ones) and the dearth of African films in Cannes this year justify the movie’s Out-of-Competition slot in the official selection. Though given the festival’s historically patchy representation of documentaries, it’s too bad this intermittently engrossing film didn’t spend longer in the editing room to give it some much-needed definition.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Veilleur de Nuit Production, Zero One Film, Wrong Men, DFH Uganda
Director-screenwriter: Jonathan Littell
Producer: Jean-Marc Giri
Directors of photography: Joachim Philippe, Johann Feindt
Editor: Marie-Helen Dozo
Sales: Le Pacte
Not rated, 133 minutes