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Children at War

Made by three friends, Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey, the documentary Invisible Children tells a story of war, murder, but also one of hope over adversity in the oft-neglected continent of Africa.

By Scott R. Caseley

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A scene from Invisible Children.

Initially, Jason Russell, Laren Poole, and Bobby Bailey planned to go to Sudan, but fate and a group called the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) had other plans for them. The LRA shot out the truck that was traveling before them. They were then forced to turn around and wound up stranded in Northern Uganda where they witnessed children who sleeping in the street and uncovered a story that both appalled and moved them to action.

They became witnesses and documentarians to help bring to light the tragic story of Northern Uganda that has been embroiled in a civil war spanning 20 years. This conflict began with the defeat in 1986 of Presidents Milton Obote and Tito Okello by forces loyal to Uganda's current leader, Yoweri Museveni.  The remnants of the defeated forces fled north and rallied around leader Alice Lakwena in the '80s.  In 1987, Lakwena went into exile and Joseph Kony assumed control of the rebels.  When Kony came to power, many people became disengaged with the cause. So he took it upon himself to create an army of children.  As a result, tens of thousands were abducted and enslaved into his army.

For Russell and the other two daring filmmakers, their experience in Northern Uganda disgusted them and compelled them to create the documentary Invisible Children.  They originally screened the film in June 2004 for friends and family and soon expanded to high schools, colleges and religious institutions. From suburban living rooms to Capitol Hill, with coverage on Oprah, CNN, the National Geographic Channel, this film has taken on a life of its own.  Filmmaker Jason Russell spoke with NewEnglandFilm.com about the film, now on a world tour of screenings through schools across country, including many in New England.

Scott Caseley: Stories can come from anywhere in the world, why did you decide on the continent of Africa?

Jason Russell: For the adventure, find the untold story. To make a wider story than we typically would have. When we first started, I knew I wanted to go to Africa; the continent intrigued me, the mystery. It is one of the only places in the world that is unexplored.

SC: What kind of budget did you have for undergoing such an endeavor? How did you raise the money for it?

Russell: The way we initially got started was sending out letters for support to friends and family. We raised $10,000 to pay for our plane tickets and get the equipment we needed -- a Canon XL-1 and a Canon GL-2 off of eBay. We also had a Super-8 camera left over from school.

SC: How has such an event continued on with such little notice in the world outside Uganda?

Russell: It’s kind of isolated from the rest of the world. And, it’s very hard for Americans to understand what’s going on over in Africa without going over there. It’s very hard for us to wrap our heads around such a horrific issue.

SC: A large section of your film talks about the Global Night Commute, could you tell me what it means to the people of Uganda?

Russell: It’s basically not something the children have ever desired to do; it’s something out of necessity to do in order to run for their lives. What it means for the children is that they leave their homes at night and they sleep together (at its height reaching about 30,000) in community centers like churches in order to not be abducted by the LRA.

SC: Amidst all this tragedy and catastrophe, you show people at play and with great joy celebrating a birthday and just dancing, why did you feel this was as important to document as well as the horror around these people?

Russell: The hard part for Americans to grasp is that Africans and Ugandans in particular is that they have joy through difficult circumstances, and they have families just like the ones here in the West. I think that it’s important to show joy and resilience through such pain and suffering.

SC: You've been well-received by Oprah Winfrey, director Jon Turtletaub (National Treasure), recently announced Presidential candidate for 2008 and current Senator Brownback of Kansas.  What has their praise meant for your mission?

Russell: I think that it adds to the weight of the severity of the issue and the caliber of attention, not internationally but more so domestically how Americans prioritize things. When politicians and TV personalities focus in on something, it gives the American public the opportunity to hear stories that matter.

SC: Is your mission one of an organized religion?

Russell: It's made up of individuals who feel that the story needs to be told and the situation in Northern Uganda needs to be told. It’s not a requirement to follow Christ in our mission. We feel that if you want to go on a mission to find God, we welcome those to find him. We don’t want to make this about religion. It’s not a Ugandan, or African problem; it’s a global problem. No one is exempt from helping, helping the children to find a voice.

SC: In September of 2006, a truce and cease-fire was signed between the LRA and the Ugandan government, does this make you feel that you've made a difference?

Russell: We believe the awareness and lobbying that we’ve done in DC has made a difference in Uganda in the last summer. We believe in the American government and that if there’s enough constituents writing letters and making phone calls, the Congress has to listen. We have an event called “Displace Me” being held on April 28th all over the US. There are 15 camps in 15 major cities across the nation. It focuses on the 1.6 million Ugandans who are living in these camps, that the UN has called the worst forgotten crisis in the world. To create a vehicle of what it feels like to live off of one dollar a day and share a bathroom with a thousand people. And, to put them into the mindset of those living in a war-torn area.

SC: Where does your movement go from here?

Russell: For us the journey is the destination, where it ends up. Who knows the power of potential that this can create. We are excited about telling the stories of invisible children around the world. Our responsibility is telling their stories well and to the best of our abilities.

To find out more about Invisible Children, visit http://www.invisiblechildren.com. The film is screening throughout schools in New England during February and March 2007 (http://www.invisiblechildren.com/theMovie/screenings/) and is available on DVD.

Related Image: On the streets of Uganda.