A new documentary about northern Uganda documents the region’s recovery from two decades of civil war. Its co-director Kelly Burks explains why the film draws on hope, rather than the wounds of the past
In 2013, I spoke to Ahunna Eziakonwa, then resident coordinator of the UN in Uganda. She said, “We keep hearing about Joseph Kony [head of Ugandan guerilla group the Lord’s Resistance Army], in the news, but the victims are beginning to fade.” She told me that the Acholi – an ethnic group from northern Uganda – and others from the region had seen enough films about the tragedy. They had lived through it, and now they needed a positive way forward.
Her words inspired me to make a film focusing on the tremendous resilience and spirit of the people of northern Uganda. We realised that the greatest inspiration we could offer this community who had suffered so much was to show how some who had suffered alongside them had begun to recover. Our feeling was that the beauty of their culture and the immensity of the Ugandan landscapes in the film would capture the real potential of the region.
They had lived through it, and now they needed a positive way forward
We were particularly touched by the women from what is known as the ‘child mothers’ community, who formed the collective Wuro Cokwo. The name translates as ‘let us rebuild our lives’. It was important that they were strong characters in the film. They had been abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) as girls, repeatedly raped and forced to have children while living like nomads in the bush, where they were often caught in running battles between the LRA and government troops. If they managed to escape and somehow make it back to their villages, they were often not accepted. They had seen too much; they had mothered the children of LRA commanders who had ordered countless atrocities against the Acholi people. They were feared and resented.
It was difficult to hear the many stories of unimaginable cruelty the ordinary people of northern Uganda were subjected to. We found out about the desecration of children, the addictive cycle of fear which led the victims to go on to victimise others, or be shot by their commanders. It was often impossible to digest what we were hearing – it went beyond our comprehension of human behaviour.
But it was also a gift; these individuals found the courage to share their stories with us and we had to find enough empathy to meet this trust, to embrace their experiences. This was transformational for me personally, and changed both mine and my co-director, Eric Bednarski’s, lives.
In spite of all the pain and the grief, we met so many people who were ready to smile. We were told the Acholi are born dancing, they live dancing and they die dancing and that if you ever want to get the Acholi together, let them dance. On one occasion, Lucky Bosmic, a kind of Bob Marley of northern Uganda who wrote two songs for the film, performed an impromptu concert for us, gathering dancers and singers in the middle of a busy intersection in the city of Gulu. Within 20 minutes there were around 300 people around us, smiling and dancing.
I had never experienced the level of commitment to inner change, or as deep an understanding of the value in helping others who have suffered similar pain, as I did among the Acholi. Their culture of forgiveness and acceptance seemed wholly unique.
What we learned from the Acholi and the profound message they send out into the world in the film is that there is always hope. No matter what happens, no matter how difficult, there is always the possibility to start again and transform through empathy, forgiveness, compassion and commitment.
The conviction that we had to do what we could to help these courageous people pushed us through countless operational difficulties and a punishing research and filming schedule in hot and dusty conditions. Eric and I also developed a lively sense of humour along the way. We were given the names of Professor Gum (‘gum’ meaning luck) and Professor Omara (‘omara’ meaning love) by the Acholi, not bad for a couple of uptight white guys.
On the big screen
We first screened the film at a peace conference in Switzerland in August, organised by Initiatives of Change – an international charity that campaigns for a more sustainable, compassionate world. Sitting in the audience with women from Liberia, South Africa, Kenya, Rwanda and South Sudan, and hearing their laughter, sighs and whispers was a great moment for us. It meant acceptance from people who lived in countries with similar cultures, who knew something of the horror that the film touched on. Afterwards many of them asked when it would be translated so that they could share this message of hope with their own people.
I have just returned from the film’s premiere in Uganda. I felt the palpable impact in the audience of what we had made, as the film progressed. Ugandans are known for their love of conversation, but there was near silence throughout. Afterwards the minister of state for northern Uganda, Grace Kwiyucwiny, quipped: “No one fell asleep in there.”
A Film for Northern Uganda is reaching people from many walks of life, moving them, and interesting them in places and people they may never have heard of. We could not ask more than that.
Tales of resilience from A Film for Northern Uganda
Recovery from the trauma of war and its associated pain and grief is a slow process featuring many setbacks. Despite this, Burks and Bednarski found individuals rebuilding their communities. Here are just some of their stories
Annet’s parents were murdered by the LRA in front of her when she was seven years old.
She then became the possession of a commander. She lost her first child when the little girl was shot off her back in a running battle in the bush. After years of intense isolation and hardship, she finally escaped and returned to the city of Gulu.
Along with other former abductees, Annet formed a supportive child mother’s community, Wuro Cokwo, and the group secured support and resources from development charities including Seeds for Development and Send a Cow.
“We didn’t have drums, so we used jerry cans,” she says in the film. “We started a dance group. Dancing helped us to block the bad memories.”
Annet, now in her mid 20s, lives in the community with her daughter Daphine. “My dream is to build a new house for me and my daughter. I want her to study well because I didn’t get the chance. In a way, she will be studying in my place.”
She helps other women who have been through similar traumas, tailoring, making jewellery, farming organically, and performing dances and works of theatre. Their goal is to build a school to educate not only their own children, who currently have to travel up to 10 miles for classes, but for children from surrounding communities too.
Louis was abducted by the LRA when a teenager. He was forced to march through the bush towards the district of Kitgum carrying heavy bags containing food and weaponry. He said the LRA beat and tortured him, forcing him to shoot one of his friends.
Soon after, Louis was caught in a battle with government troops which gave him the chance to escape. He crawled back through the bush towards Gulu, spending three days without food and water.
Once home, Louis immediately sought out his friend’s family. Following the Mato Oput – a traditional Acholi purification process which aims to restore damaged relationships between clans and prevent conflict – he was accepted back into the community. He remains close to the family.
He now spends his time helping others who have been through the traumas of war. Following his graduation from a course in welding, funded by the United Nations Development Programme, he now trains others in the trade. He seeks out former abducted rebels, street children and women, to help them develop valuable skills. He is fighting fear and prejudice in showing the community that these troubled youths can change.
“I am here to show women that they can also do the same thing as men.”
He also finds time to raise money for people who were mutilated during the conflict. Today, one of the children of his deceased friend’s family works with Louis in the workshop.
At the age of 16, Nancy was married to a soldier in the government barracks and became pregnant with his child. Walking home from the barracks one day, she was brutally attacked and mutilated by the LRA. She knew some of the rebels – they were boys who had been abducted from her village – but no matter how she pleaded with them they did not hear her.
Due to the injuries she suffered, her teeth were permanently exposed and she was feared and shunned in her village. Her disfigurement frightened people. Eventually, an organisation called AYINET, that helps victims of conflict and oppression, helped Nancy undergo reconstructive surgery with funding from the United Nations Development Programme. Nancy’s return to her village in the north after many months of surgery was a cause for great celebration.
When the government announced an amnesty, allowing rebels to return to their homes without fearing prison or prosecution, the boy who had cut her came back to her village. When we met Nancy in 2015, she was still very angry and wanted justice, but when we returned earlier this year, she said: “When I pass him in the village, I always stop and greet him. I do not feel hate for him. I have forgiven him in my heart.”
A Film for Northern Uganda was made by Kelly Burks and Eric Bednarski in collaboration with Initiatives of Change, for the United Nations Development Programme. It is available for free on YouTube.
Images: Kelly Burks