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Reinscribing Violence: Emil Langballe and Lukasz Konopa’s ‘Theatre of Violence’

By Vladan Petković

Photo courtesy of CPH:DOX. Still from 'Theatre of Violence.' A person with dark skin, wearing a brown rimmed hat and a blue coat, holding a cellphone, stands in a green field with a dirt path.

The new Danish-German production Theatre of Violence, co-directed by Denmark’s Emil Langballe and Poland’s Lukasz Konopa, recently had its world premiere at CPH:DOX in Copenhagen. This gripping, thoroughly researched documentary follows the Hague trial of Dominic Ongwen, the only Ugandan war criminal to be apprehended by the International Criminal Court (ICC). Alongside this main narrative, the filmmakers expand into connected issues, including the way European colonial powers exploited interethnic grievances by splitting African countries between themselves, the nature of crime and guilt, the question of free will, implications of the trial within the Ugandan society, and even the perception of the ICC itself. Langballe and Konopa strive to achieve a balance between opposing views and give voice to the Ugandans’ concerns. Even with all these efforts, however, the film can be plausibly seen as another colonial undertaking. 

Ongwen was abducted when he was nine years old by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a rebel group from northern Uganda that gradually turned into a murderous Christian cult led by the mysterious and elusive Joseph Kony, often dubbed the most wanted war criminal in the world. Ongwen is charged with 70 crimes against humanity, including mass murder, rape, forced marriage, indoctrination, and abduction of children—as he himself was. His defense team, led by the eloquent and charismatic lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo, introduces the idea that he was both victim and perpetrator, which will become the film's central question. In addition, they posit that the threat of retaliation if he did not follow orders left Ongwen without a choice. This threat was physical as well as spiritual. LRA troops genuinely believed their leader was a demigod and that God’s wrath would be called upon them if they disobeyed orders. These facts are what the prosecutor, Britain’s Ben Gumbert, calls nonlegal issues, which he says will not save Ongwen from the charges but might represent mitigating circumstances. 

Following Ayena as he looks for local witnesses, Theatre of Violence shows that many Ugandans feel that the ICC is essentially an unfair institution by cherry-picking just one commander from one faction, while Yoweri Museveni—the dictator in power for 35 years—and his government, have not been accused. Some Acholi people of Ongwen’s ethnic group point out that the regime has been just as or even more violent in its actions, especially if you look at their position and the scale of the wrongdoing. Moreover, Ugandans ask, why is it only Africans that go to this court? The fundamental issue is such: the ICC can hardly be deemed just if it does not prosecute the biggest war criminals who have caused the most suffering around the world, which would be all the U.S. presidents and UK prime ministers in the last 30 years. But this is impossible due to legal fundaments of the institution and limits of its jurisdiction. 

The ICC website indeed feels colonialistic: one needs to scroll through several pages of past, current, and potential future defendants before encountering a white one. This is partly because many African governments themselves asked the court to intervene, as Museveni’s did to incapacitate his enemies. Thirty-four African countries represent the biggest block among signatories of the ICC’s founding document, the Rome Statute, while the U.S., China, and Russia do not recognize it, meaning it has no jurisdiction over their citizens. Put plainly, the injustice in this very setup is mind-boggling. Even a recent warrant issued for Putin has been largely seen as symbolic, even if some mainstream media speculate that, theoretically, he could be arrested. In the context of justice and especially in a documentary film that explores deeper issues, it is impossible not to see the broader picture and spot double standards. 

Langballe and Konopa do go there: In a scene designed to look like something out of a spy thriller, the white American member of the defense team, Tom Obhof, tells Ayena that the court is not necessarily racist but rather is geared towards keeping in power governments friendly to Western values and governments. The matter-of-fact nature of his statement would read like a self-aware imperialistic position—we know it’s wrong, but we do it because we can—except that Obhof himself is portrayed as a good-natured, sympathetic Midwesterner. If his explanation was meant to criticize the established power relations, the film does not say it outright and consequently muddles the distinction between how things are, how the protagonist understands things, and how the filmmakers themselves understand things. Too much is left to audience interpretation regarding the film’s overarching theme. 

The principal narrative unfolds in the sterile, fluorescent-lit Hague courtroom where a Black man, prosecuted by a white British lawyer, is on trial. Even without the awareness that Uganda was formerly a British colony, it would be difficult to perceive Ben Gumpert’s Cambridge accent, his pompous robe, and his attitude as a prosecutor as anything but privileged and arrogant. Even if the ICC’s chief prosecutor at the time was a woman from Gambia, two of the three judges sitting on a podium high above the rest of the delegates were also white. At one point, Ongwen says he is happy to be brought before this very court as he heard about it while he was in the bush, but he nevertheless feels abducted again. The filmmakers either used the official ICC footage or filmed the courtroom scenes in a similar, clinically cold style. When you add the awareness that two white Europeans, educated in the UK, made the film, which was produced with European public funding, it’s easy to trace the colonial lineages baked into the very making of the film. This is the perception of an informed Westerner, but what Ugandans may think of the film will be hard to know as, by the filmmakers’ own assertion, most of them will never see it. 

What, then, to make of a scene in which a group of villagers in northern Uganda gather around a TV, watching the trial, and ICC-accredited local men come to answer their questions? When the ICC representatives' responses make the villagers sound naive, the encounter resembles a 19th-century adventure novel in which savages are being schooled by their less savage counterparts, who are, in turn, governed and instructed by the enlightened white man. This gives the film a patronizing dimension, but this type of outreach is something that the ICC regularly does, and the scene provides key information for a general audience. 

We have no reason to doubt the co-directors’ intentions. Both had previously worked in Uganda, spent six years making this complex film, and genuinely believed in the importance of their undertaking. In an interview with Business Doc Europe, they say they were very much aware of their position as white Europeans telling an African story. They also recall that they used to consider the ICC an irreproachable institution before they heard opposing opinions in Uganda, so their decision to have the film's title appear over the courtroom's image could imply a view of the court itself as a “theatre of violence.” Such a critique would certainly be appropriate and fit the film in terms of questioning the issue of international law and justice, but it is still ambiguous. If a documentary depicting the consequences of European colonialism from a European point of view does not state its opposing position clearly enough, it is reinscribing these very same power inequities; there is just too much weight on one side of the scale. 

Is it possible for European filmmakers to properly equip themselves to tell African stories? Are they as poorly equipped to tell them as the ICC is poorly structured to process them? Do they become a part of the colonial machinery simply by belonging to a system they were educated in, which enabled them to make the film? Even if they become aware of it, is there anything they can do to fix it beyond giving up on making the film? 

These questions beget more questions. Should white filmmakers stop attempting to tell African stories? Should they address their own position more directly? Would this shift the film's focus onto themselves and thus perpetuate the “white savior” narrative? Should this be dealt with on an institutional level by funding bodies enforcing clear criteria for what is deemed a colonial approach and require a certain quota of local crew to be involved in certain decision-making positions? Who decides what constitutes a colonial approach, and who would impose such quotas? People in charge of the funding, who are also white Europeans?

Until we come up with satisfactory solutions to all these questions, white filmmakers could give Africa a break—they have certainly made enough films about stories from the continent. Meanwhile, the cinematic resources of wealthy countries and organizations—expertise, funding, and technology—could be directed toward developing the local film industry. Such programs have recently spawned excellent locally-made films like Zinder (2021) and The Last Shelter (2021) but are limited in scope and reach. In addition, European funding bodies regularly help finance individual projects from the continent, but it is clear that a more efficient and sustainable approach is needed. It would require a system-wide overhaul, which would be slow, painful, and hard to predict. But the nature of Theatre of Violence and the number of issues it raises prove that, in 2023, such an overhaul is necessary.

Vladan Petković is a film journalist, critic, and festival programmer. He is a correspondent for Screen International, senior writer for Cineuropa, contributing editor for IDFA's website, and head of studies of the GoCritic! training program for emerging film critics. He is a program advisor at IDFA, program director at Rab Film Festival, and a programmer at ZagrebDox, and regularly curates for other festivals and events around Europe.