"Supplies were short and the nearest shower was a three-hour plane ride away."
Washington-based filmmaker Karim Chrobog has traveled from Sudan to London to
WASHINGTON LIFE: How did the War Child project come about?
KARIM CHROBOG: Three years ago, I was living in Dubai, and my co-producer Afshin Molavi and I decided to do a project on the globalization of hip-hop. We short-listed a number of artists, among them Emmanuel Jal. On a trip to Washington, a friend gave me a New York Times article on Emmanuel. In that week he was also featured on NPR and in the Financial Times. We took this as a sign, and I booked a ticket to London the next day to pitch him the story. I think Emmanuel was initially reluctant to relive his traumatic past through the documentary, and I was fully sympathetic. Over time, we developed a good relationship until he finally gave us the go-ahead. We shot the film in so many places — from the slums of Nairobi and the United Nations refugee camp Kakuma on the Kenyan-Sudan border to the South of Sudan, New Orleans, New York and D.C. — it's hard to believe it's finished.
WL: What message does it carry?
KC: Emmanuel's transformation from child soldier to rap star is quite amazing. For a young person to overcome so much adversity in life to emerge into a major hip-hop artist is quite a feat. At the same time, we also want to bring attention to what happened in the south of Sudan where, since the '80s, two million people have died and another four million have been displaced. Ten thousand child soldiers — all under the watch of the international community — have fought in the conflict. If that's not shocking enough, one only need look at what is happening in the western Sudan region of Darfur right now under the same rhetoric of "never again" Peace is not guaranteed in the South. It's just a matter of time before conflict erupts again, mainly because of the vast oil reserves located there. Khartoum will not give them up. So, the film is really a warning bell. Luckily, there is a tremendous Sudan grassroots peace movement that includes all religions, student groups and think tanks. There is a real opportunity here to be engaged and to influence policy. Emmanuel puts a face to it.
WL: Any war stories from War Child?
KC: There are a few. South Sudan is just emerging from a long and brutal conflict. It is also one of the least developed places in the world. I heard that there are 15 kilometers of paved roads in the whole region. Communication takes place through satellite phones, and the only way to get around is to hitch rides on frighteningly small humanitarian UN planes. We had many bizarre experiences during our time there. Most memorable was 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 a three-hour plane ride away. The other moment was trying to get permission to shoot the demobilization of soldiers in Rumbek. We tried to track down the local commander, who raced through the village in a Jeep mounted with a huge bull horn followed by pick up trucks with heavy guns. Needless to say, he was not too impressed by our request.
WL: Will we see you at Sundance?
KC: I don't want to speculate too much — at this stage, we want to complete the best film we can and the rest will take care of itself.
WL: Have you always been a filmmaker?
KC: Filmmaking was actually never on my mind. I studied international politics at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service and was determined to follow in the footsteps of my father, who served as the German ambassador to Washington. Obviously, that did not happen. My Egyptian grandfather was a wonderful writer in Egypt. He wrote numerous scripts for the Egyptian cinema. Maybe those genes caught up with me.
WL: What's next for you?
KC: I am currently working on a feature film on Ibn Battutah, a 14th century Moroccan adventurer who happens to be the most widely traveled person in history but has been largely forgotten. We are going to retrace his journey but with an interesting twist. I am particularly excited about this project, because we are going to look at the Arab world in an entirely different way.