Africa in Motion: Jean-Stéphanie Sauvaire
- Kaleem Aftab
- 16 October 2009
To kick off our coverage of the Africa in Motion film festival, Kaleem Aftab speaks to the director of a new thriller set during the worst atrocities of Liberia’s recent civil war
The use of child soldiers is given a realistic and at times horrifying platform in French director Jean-Stéphanie Sauvaire’s depiction of the civil war that ravaged Liberia for over a decade until peace was declared in 2003. Sauvaire was familiar with the problems in Liberia as he tried to shoot a documentary in the state in 2003 before deciding that it was too dangerous. It says a lot about the parlous state of the African nation that Sauvaire chose to then go on to make a documentary in Columbia, where child soldiers were being used in the civil war against the FARC (the revolutionary People’s Army of Columbia).
It was after this experience that a friend suggest to the director that he read Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog about Civil War atrocities in an unnamed West African country. It was this experience that got Sauvaire thinking about Africa again.
‘It was important to see the real experience of child soldiers,’ he says. ‘We went to meet people in Liberia in 2004, just one year after the end of the war and it was still quite unstable as there was a transitional government. It took a long time to do the casting and finding the money and deciding where to shoot. At one state the UK film council were going to invest and then they pulled out. In the end we were ready to shoot in 2006, just at the moment of the election the change in government really helped us. The new government said, “You have to do a movie here, because we want to prove to the international community that we can do it.”’
What is most remarkable about Johnny Mad Dog the movie is the hard-hitting nature of the action. The young director states that this is because he listened to his actors, many of whom had been child soldiers. ‘In the book soldiers were going into the village and killing everyone. But the boys said that when they went into the village they would try to recruit the boys. They told me that they would go up to the boys and tell them to kill their fathers to show that they were ready to take on the uniform. I think this sequence is more interesting and also gave an insight into the recruitment process and what they were doing in villages.’
The film has been shown to the United Nations in New York to raise awareness of the child soldier’s issue and since finishing the film Sauvaire has been helping set up a facility to help get former child soldiers off the streets. It seems the end of one war is the start of another altogether different but no less difficult battle.
Johnny Mad Dog is showing as part of Africa in Motion on Fri 23 Oct. www.africa-in-motion.org.uk