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Meet the Filmmakers: C. Karim Chrobog--'War Child'

By Tom White

Over the next few weeks, we at IDA will be introducing our community to the filmmakers whose work will be represented in the DocuWeekTM Theatrical Documentary Showcase, August 8-14 in New York City and August 22-28 in Los Angeles. We asked the filmmakers to share the stories behind their films--the inspirations, the challenges and obstacles, the goals and objectives, the reactions to their films so far.

So, to continue this series of conversations, here is C. Karim Chrobog, director/producer of War Child.

Synopsis: War Child chronicles the tragic but ultimately hopeful life of Emmanuel Jal, a former child soldier of Sudan's brutal civil war and emerging international rap star with a message of peace for his country. His story mirrors his homeland: tragedy and terror mingling with hope and restoration. Orphaned, firing a gun that he at age seven could barely hold aloft, trekking through deserts in search of shelter, Jal was adopted by an aid worker. His rise from orphan to soldier to refugee to rap star represents one of the 21st century's most inspiring and hopeful journeys.

IDA: How did you get started in documentary filmmaking?

C. Karim Chrobog: I never planned to be a filmmaker. Far from it, I was planning to go into the diplomatic service following the steps of quite a few family members in Europe. I did always have a passion for documentary films though. My co-producer and I also like music, so we thought it would be interesting to do a documentary series about the explosion and globalization of music around the world. We looked for compelling musicians and came across Emmanuel Jal, who, as a former child soldier turned global rap star (soundtrack for Blood Diamond, ER, Live8), has a particularly fascinating story to tell. We did not do the series, though we are still looking at it now, and we focused on Emmanuel's story as the one we wanted to pursue.

IDA: What inspired you to make War Child?

CKC: We have been working on War Child for more than three years. When I met Emmanuel for the first time in London, and learned about his astonishing life story from child soldier to international hip-hop star, it was clear that this story deserved telling. His winning character and musical talent make him a compelling figure. Our screenings show that audiences are immediately hooked and emotionally tied to his personality. He presents a unique opportunity to address complicated issues, such as the use of child soldiers, the war in Sudan, refugees and so on, but through the eyes of a musician.

War Child is not a conflict documentary that leaves audiences hopeless because they don't know how they can transform the experience that they have gone through watching the film into concrete actions. The film presents real solutions. They are the same ones that drive Emmanuel and serve as inspiration for his music, and have allowed him to put his traumatic past aside and become an active participant in helping his country move forward.

IDA: What were some of the challenges and obstacles in making this film, and how did you overcome them?

CKC: War Child has been an incredibly challenging film to make from many perspectives. As first-time filmmakers, we had a very steep learning curve not only to understand what it takes to make a film like ours, but also to convince funders to support our project.

Logistically, shooting in South Sudan, a country that is just emerging from a long and brutal conflict, was tough, to say the least. The country is one of the least developed places in the world. I heard that there are 15 kilometers of paved roads in the whole South. There is barely any existing phone system. Communication takes place through satellite phones, and the only way to get around is by hitching rides on tiny humanitarian UN planes. We had many bizarre experiences during our time there talking to obscure characters, from bush pilots to warlords. Most memorable of these experiences include getting stranded in the village of Leer in the middle of absolutely nowhere; our plane did not show. Supplies were short, it was brutally hot and the nearest shower was at least a three-hour plane ride away. The other moment was trying to get permission to shoot the demobilization of soldiers in the remote village of Rumbek. Out of courtesy we tried to track down the local commander, who raced through the village in a jeep mounted with a huge bullhorn, followed by pickup trucks with heavy guns. Needless to say, the commander was not too impressed by our request. But we were fortunate to see many places that we would have never seen traveling in the contested oil fields or visiting sprawling refugee camps.

IDA: How did your vision for the film change over the course of the pre-production, production and post-production processes?

CKC: War Child has gone through many changes, evolutions and looks. The biggest challenge for us was to find the right balance between educating audiences about the issues that the film strives to address and letting Emmanuel as the central character tell his story. We also wanted to keep the film young and exciting, and there is lots of great music that moves the various storylines forward.

IDA: As you've screened War Child-whether on the festival circuit, or in screening rooms, or in living rooms-how have audiences reacted to the film? What has been most surprising or unexpected about their reactions?

CKC: War Child has played at a number of prestigious festivals, including Berlin for our world premiere, Seattle, Edinburgh, Jackson Hole and Tribeca, where we won the Cadillac Audience Choice Award. The film has been honored by standing ovations at every screening we have had.

More important, though, we have launched Gua Africa, a foundation that provides education and builds schools for former Sudanese child soldiers and Lost Boys in the Sudan. We have received tremendous support from audiences, but one especially memorable moment was when a lady came up to us after a screening at Tribeca and handed us a check, even though she could barely afford her rent. She told me that she had been so touched by the film that she felt compelled to do something. Moments like this really show you the power of documentaries and the level of awareness they can create and empower us to become involved.

IDA: What docs or docmakers have served as inspirations for you?

CKC: Martin Scorsese and Werner Herzog.

War Child will be screening at the Village East Cinema in New York and the Arclight Hollywood.

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To view the DocuWeek schedule in Los Angeles, visit

To purchase tickets to DocuWeek at the ArcLight Hollywood, visit