LSE’s Cameron Demetre reviews the film We Were Rebels, directed by Katharina von Schroeder and  Florian Schewe, which tells the story of a former child soldier who returns to South Sudan at independence to help rebuild his country.

How could one leave the relative ease of a life in a conflict-free land abroad to return to a homeland rife with violence? It is a question not faced by many, if any, of the eyes fixed on the projection screen in Professor Catherine Boone’s African Political Economy course at LSE, but bubbling beneath is a question of state-building; state-building that pits the hopeful intent of a people longing for a land that can be a beacon of political stability against a half-century of fragmented instability. It is within this battle that our protagonist beckons.

The film stands on the tall shoulders of one Agel Ring Machar, a giant of a man who just happened to captain the first ever South Sudan national basketball team. The physical stature of Machar is only surpassed by his irrepressible character. The film aptly allows for his larger-than-life persona to pour out of the film as the crew tracks his life from South Sudan’s independence on July 2011 and two years beyond. Although Machar is the central figure, the real story lies in the film’s ability to thread the experiences of Machar with the burgeoning story of the national identity of a people. The cinematography within the film beautifully captures the enthusiasm of the newly-independent country through jubilant marches, and the film also provides glimpses into the birthing pains of the world’s newest sovereign nation.

The opening scene has its genesis with Machar sharing his experience of losing most of the males in his household to the civil war between the Sudan’s People Liberation Army (SPLA) and the Sudanese military. From that point on, he was trained quickly to be a killer. While grabbing his gun from underneath his rail-thin mattress, He vividly and somewhat jokingly recollects being handed his first AK-47 which was far too heavy for him to even pick up. Now, years older and several pounds heavier, he holds the gun and speaks of how easy it is to kill a man by simply pressing the trigger four times and letting the Kalashnikov do its work. The film recounts these stories in a way that seems to bridge the severity of his past experiences with a demeanour that illustrates his hopeful mindset during the creation of his new nation. Though powerfully affected by his past experiences as a child soldier, it does not wholly define Machar. He oscillates between new and vastly different experiences all the while balancing them in a way that does justice to each role within his life.

As the film progresses, the audience is exposed to the many layers of Machar from child soldier, to fleeing refugee, to national team captain, to becoming a family man, and then to the necessity of becoming a soldier once more. The many phases of this brilliant film illuminate the complexity of one man’s journey of resilience and hopeful pursuit for a “New Sudan”. In this pursuit the audience has a front row seat to the turbulence of state building and all of the intricacies that arise within a nation marred by a half-century of civil war.

The 94-minute feature film is complemented by a web-based documentary comprised of a wide range of shorter film clips on an assortment of personal experiences of South Sudanese independence. Aside from Machar’s story, the crew paired up with local documentary filmmakers as well as radio and television journalists from Sudan and South Sudan and together followed numerous characters affected in different ways by the split of Sudan. This resulted in a rich variety of individual stories of hope, conflict and self-determinism, both from a Sudanese and a South Sudanese perspective. Together with the film We Were Rebels, these five to ten minute film clips hint at the immense complexity of implications of the partition of a country caught up in conflict and civil war for much of the second half of the 20th century.

For viewing the film clips as well as for more information on the project, please visit The Two Sudans.

Cameron Demetre is a LSE postgraduate student.


The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.