Interview: Jean van de Velde on The Silent Army

The Dutch director Jean van der Velde’s latest film, The Silent Army, is an exciting story of a man’s desperate hunt for his son’s kidnapped best friend. It is also a powerful exploration of the phenomenon of child soldiers in East Africa, where children are often forced to fight in brutal conflicts

Jean vaan de Velde director of The Silent Army

At The Film Review we really liked the film and caught up with van der Velde last week. Unfortunately the harsh winter weather meant he couldn’t come over from Holland so we had a chat with him over the telephone. He was very friendly and helpful in filling us in on the project.

Until the age of 13 van der Velde lived in the former French colonies of Burundi and Congo, although his family made forays into Uganda – where the film is set – to stock up on peanut butter that wasn’t sold in the former two countries! Now aged 53, he has been working in the film industry since the late seventies.

The project got under way when van der Velde was contacted by Marco Borsato, the actor who plays the main role in the film, a well-known singer in Holland. They both knew each other and Borsato was aware that Jean had been born and raised in Africa. It was this life experience which was to prove decisive. As a long standing supporter of the War Child charity, which works to help children affected by war, the Dutch singer was keen to make a film about child soldiers.

As van der Velde explains it, Marco Borsato gave him free rein, he said “write whatever you want to, but I want to make a movie about child soldiers.” After carrying out some research into the worldwide problem, he decided to focus on Uganda as it was the area most familiar to him. Having a big star on board, well known in Holland at least, gave van der Velde a flexibility to make a popular film that dealt with serious issues: “people would go and watch.. [to] learn about Marco Borsato, but [I could] also give them some sort of insight into the complexities of Africa.”

Marco Borsato and Frederick Mpuuga in the Silent Army

Jean van de Velde’s African upbringing influence in the film

I ask how his experience growing up in Africa influenced the film. The first advantage was practical, “I could communicate better with the actors as I still speak a bit of the local languages”. His knowledge of the area also helped create a better feel for the reality on the ground in a multi-lingual country, he says “I knew that the different languages spoken in Uganda all have their different communities: Military people speak Swahili, while people back home people speak Luganda.”

This led to one of the proudest moments of his career. When screening the film in Kampala and in Ugandan refugee camps last year, “people said to me ‘This is our movie’”, he feels the local audience’s identification with the film is in part because it uses local languages unlike The Last King of Scotland where everyone speaks English and “in Hotel Rwanda they used South African actors all the time, it would be a bit like in Europe, Swedish [roles] played by Italians.” Van der Velde’s up-bringing in Africa also gave him an eye for the details of local life. For example, Abu, the film’s main child star, is given a wooden game console, carved by his father, inspired by the carved wooden toys that van der Velde saw as a child.

Child soldiers

Asked about the lack of portrayal of child soldiers and similar important issues affecting Africa in Hollywood movies and Van Der Velte says that for Hollywood “it is difficult to really touch the harshness and cruelty of child soldiers … the audience would be appalled.” He considers Hotel Rwanda and Blood Diamond, Hollywood films that have dealt with these issues, very touching stories, “but in execution, to my taste, they always felt a bit like Disney Africa, they lack any real feel for the content and stories of Africa.”

The film contains some quite shocking scenes that give a horrifying insight into the atrocities child soldiers encounter, and at times I wanted to look away. van der Velde is clear that he didn’t want the audience to turn their heads, but did want the film to carry the message. “Apart from one scene you never see any violence, it’s like in Jaws, you only get the suggestion”.

The cast

Many of the young cast were found in Ugandan singing and dancing groups, including Andrew Kintu who plays Abu. These groups were chosen so the children had some experience of performance, but they were still not professional actors and had to be guided every step of the way. “I created situations and provoked them into scenes,” and used three cameras to make sure nothing was lost.

None of this was made any easier when half way through shooting logistical issues forced the entire cast and crew to relocate from Uganda, where shooting started, to South Africa. This meant getting papers for 40 people who had never left their local area, let along travelled by passenger jet. Once in South Africa, the children found it so cold that they resorted to building fires from their bed sheets to keep their hotel room warm.

The cast of Jean van de Velde's film The Silent Army
Van de Velde and principle members of the cast at Cannes where The Silent Army was selected under Un Certain Regard section of the festival

The heart of the issue

van der Velde says he wasn’t trying to preach on the issue of child soldiers. Although admitting that the media tends to generalise on these very complex issues, he sees the basic problem as poverty – “if people don’t have anything to lose they can fight.” The hungry are more likely to be used by political or religious ideology, not to mention fighting for food. He points out that half these child armies are made up of volunteers, who mostly join because they will get fed.

The tragedy that makes the poverty in Africa all the more poignant is the continent’s immense natural resources which should create wealth for the general population. According to van der Velde the ex-colonial powers must take much of the responsibility for the social problems that arise when they “steal the commodities of the country and leaving the people with nothing at all.” Yet despite this, the Dutch government is planning to cut development aid from 0.8% of the national budget to a mere 0.2%. Despite his anger, he says “I don’t have a recipe for change of course, but awareness and knowledge is the first step I always think, whatever I can do to balance things.”

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