Interview with Bryan Single, producer of ‘Children of War’

How did you become involved with this subject and what made you interested in documenting the rehabilitation process of former child soldiers?

In early 2006, I met an English journalist who had been in Northern Uganda doing a photo essay and he had spent some of his time at the Rachele Rehabilitation Centre.   He turned me onto the center and started telling me about it and ultimately put me in hand with its founder, Els De Temmerman. I started a dialogue with her and it became apparent fairly quickly that there wasn’t a lot of mainstream media focusing on this subject and that there was a real need to tell the story. The locals on the ground wanted their stories told and they wanted the world to hear what was going on. Els basically invited me to come; she said “Please come. The doors are wide open. I’ll help you out. And bring your film camera.”

It was just the right time in my life. However, I wasn’t really interested in just telling a another story of war and tragedy in Africa. What really interested me was her description of their process of healing for these kids at this rehabilitation center, which is essentially rooted in creative expression – meaning dancing, drawing, painting, singing, parliamentary style debate, and role playing.   That’s what really interested me – the creative expression and all the range of emotions. And of course, truth telling is an important part – one-on-one counseling and getting the personal narratives of the kids, clarifying them and then learning from those experiences and getting some perspective.

All of this was really fascinating and I realized it would be a really interesting story to tell. It wasn’t rooted in just suffering, but rooted in something more universal: this idea that everyone at one time in their life has emotional pain that they have to work through and understand. I felt this was an important and thematically universal story that anyone could connect with.

You filmed about 80 children and of those, three of these children become the focus of your documentary.  Was that on purpose, or did it happen organically? Can you describe that process?

It did happen organically. I didn’t choose them per se.  The center has files on all the kids that they begin to take down as the kids get their story out. All of [the children's] stories are unique, but they also have witnessed and experienced very similar stuff.  I started spending a lot of time with the counselors and they basically made me an honorary staff member there. They really afforded me a lot of trust and access. Every day there was a staff meeting for an hour and everybody would discuss what was going on and sometimes their kids’ stories or situations came up, so I got a clearer idea. I was also hanging out with the kids a lot, eating with them or joking and playing and so forth – getting them used to me to the extent that I was no longer even there at some point. I got to know many of them despite many not speaking any English. It was a real intuitive process.  I just began filming a lot of stuff – a lot of interactions and counseling sessions and so forth. It wasn’t until later, however, when I got the footage transcribed, that I actually discovered what was being said. So my work process was a combination of intuition, skill and luck – being in the right place at the right time, capturing a really interesting interaction or debate and sensing that something interesting or important or dramatic is being said or expressed.  And then following that intuition with a certain child and spending more time with them based on a gut feeling that they are expressing themselves in a more articulate way than the other kids.

In one scene in the documentary, the former chief priest from the LRA comes to ask for forgiveness from the children. I am curious how the children reacted to him.  Also, in the clip, he’s specifically asking where his “wife” is in the center – a child that was given to him while he was in the LRA.  Did he actually consider this young girl to be his wife and how did she react to him?

The reason he came to the center was that like a lot of other former commanders, he was captured and given amnesty by the government. His intention in visiting the center was basically reconciliation. Some of the commanders or leaders who indoctrinate these kids now are returning to visit the kids and if they are sincere, honest, and remorseful, can play an important role in helping to de-indoctrinate the kids to the extent that it can be a very helpful process for everyone. So that was the reason that the former LRA head catechist was introduced to come and talk to the kids at the center.  I don’t want to give the film away, but there ends up being an incredibly heart-wrenching interaction between him and the children.  And yes, one of the girls I focus on in the film was given to him as a “wife” when she was 11 years old. She spent five years with him and was present at the center when he came, and their confrontation was dramatic to say the least.  Whether or not it was the right thing for him to come back and make himself visible in her life again is certainly debatable, but basically his visit for better or worse happened and provoked her to reach a point of catharsis, through tears in her case. Until that point she had really been repressing her feelings about it all, so perhaps in the long run it will help facilitate her healing.

It brings up a lot of interesting questions. About justice. About forgiveness. About the best way to achieve external and internal peace in the aftermath of war and emotional trauma.  The film asks a lot more questions than it answers, and I hope viewers will explore these questions and universal themes that the children are working through in relationship to their own experiences – their own personal relationships, personal trauma and sufferings, their own feelings about forgiveness and hope.

What happens to former child soldiers that aren’t old enough to care for themselves, but don’t have a family return to. Is there a time limit on how long children can stay at the center?

I would say ninety-nine percent of them have another place to go, if their parents aren’t there.  They generally always have extended family they can stay with. In Northern Uganda, it’s very family oriented society­­. Family is incredibly important. It’s not that easy always though. It can bring tension because of the poverty and because of another mouth to feed, but generally very few become complete orphans.

There are cases in which the child might be returning to an area in which he or she committed an act of violence.  Considering the stigma of being a former child soldier, are any of the kids afraid of returning to their communities and are there any community programs to help the community accept the children back as they come?

I would say yes to all of your questions.  The counselors try to prepare them [the former child soldiers] for what they will face at home before they return home. So that’s one thing not to paint a rosy picture of home as this idealized place. They recognize the challenges they may face, including their social stigmas. And sometimes the kids are afraid and hesitant. They are not sure how they will be received, and also they are still sometimes working with feelings of guilt for what they’ve done.

There is a social stigma sometimes. I’ve found that other people have done studies on this by going in there [Uganda]in the past few years and interviewing the kids, their families and the social leaders. The results of one particular study I read found that most of the kids don’t suffer – that they’re resilient, they’re accepted, and so forth.  I would say that in my opinion it’s too early to really know what the long-term effects of a 22 year war are, and it’s premature to think the short-term resilience is long standing.

I believe that trauma within the society is still really deep – not only affecting the kids – and until now, since 2006, the people are just getting out of shock mode and of living in absolute fear.  The first instinct is to unite, to forgive and to do anything to get the war away from them and to re-instill some sense of peace and stability. And that’s all beautiful and great and I’ve certainly witnessed incredible accounts in that respect, but I still think it’s too early to make any kind of judgment on what the emotional consequences and stability of this all is. It will be interesting as time goes on, when these kids grow up and become adults, how they move on with their lives.   I think it has a lot to do with their support system. If their support system is filled with love and encouragement and also opportunity through education, which is crucial, then we may see some really positive results where these kids – former child soldiers – are growing into wonderful, beautiful human beings. So we’ll just see what happens.

What is your hope for your documentary and what do you hope people take away from it?

I hope it gives people perspective on their own lives, and their own feelings and emotions, and how they might engage with their own emotions. At the end of the day even though these kids have experienced extreme situations, the root of the feelings they confront at the rehabilitation centre – fear, guilt, mistrust – these are pretty universal emotions.  Everybody can relate to these emotions on some level and can either be consumed by them or somehow find a way to delicately acknowledge what the basis of those emotions are, and deal with them and dissolve them.  I hope people that see the film will be inspired by the process of witnessing these kids go through this process, and self-reflect.

Then on a practical level, it would be great if people felt an expanded sense of compassion to the extent that they want to give back, be generous, help this particular community and these kids out.  To provide more opportunities for them through education, which is what I am interested in promoting the film. That’s my hope.

For more information on Children of War please visit the website: and their Facebook page.

—Compiled by Kate Davey