Today: April 16, 2024

Director Jean van de Velde

Director Jean van de Velde’s Silent Army (out 6th Dec on DVD) is a harrowing look at the use of children as soldiers in East Africa that pulls no punches in highlighting the reality of these defenceless youngsters. The film arrived with controversy for more than its subject matter.

Director Jean van de Velde’s Silent Army (out 6th Dec on DVD) is a harrowing look at the use of children as soldiers in East Africa
that pulls no punches in highlighting the reality of these defenceless
youngsters. The film arrived with controversy for more than its subject matter – namely a ‘white man saving black people’ and a Dutch pop star in the leading role. Jean talks to FilmJuice and answers his critics.

What was the main reasons behind revising White Light into The Silent Army?

White Light was made as a big screen commercial movie for the Netherlands. Main reason: I knew a big (female) audience would be attracted to see the immensely popular singer Marco Borsato in his first film appearance. Marco Borsato was the key to open the door to this harsh, harrowing subject of child soldiers in Africa. The subject was art-house, the execution mainstream. Now, the tragedy of many non-English spoken movies is: once they travel to other countries they have to be subtitled and no one knows the actors – so they always end up in the art house theatres for art house loving audiences. Which is a different kind of audience with a different taste and knowledge of film.

Because this subject is way bigger than my ego, I realised that to give this movie any chance for an art house public, I have to re-edit it and adapt the story to what I think is more art-house suitable. Practically, this meant two things: skip a few scenes (flashbacks) that addressed the personal story-line of Marco Borsato’s character (for a foreign audience Mr. Borsato is not known and unlike a Dutch audience there’s no need to see more of him); and second, skip the film score and thus manipulate less obvious the emotions of the spectators. The third big chance was: end the film with a big question instead of a more or less happy resolution.

What is your take at the unfair level of criticism that was made against film ie ‘the white man in the jungle’? Was this a commercial decision?

If the film was all black casted, I would not have known how to finance it. I mean, in Holland we are largely dependent on government subsidies: how would I have persuaded the Dutch commission to make a movie with Ugandan actors set in a former African English colony? That’s the tragedy that comes with the money consuming business known as film business. I could have written a book…

Now for the criticism ‘white man in the jungle’, this kind of criticism I have not heard from any of the many Ugandan people who have seen the movie! On the contrary, the most rewarding screenings I had took place in Kampala, where some of the black ‘John Does’ who saw the movie complimented me enthusiastically saying: “This is our movie! How do you know us so well!?” One of the reasons is that all the actors are truly Ugandan, all the languages spoken are Luganda or Swahili (the language of the Power) or Acholi according to reality. Some of the Ugandan said to me: “We didn’t know it was that bad up north.” (The tragedy: it’s in reality even worse…)

I’m personally fed up with critics saying that it’s again a white man saving blacks. If you watch correct, every action in saving is done by the blacks. And my God, the adult white people are in every sense causing all the trouble in the movie and ‘bad’ General Obeke’s remarks are certainly not those of a stupid insane rebel. He’s questioning white man’s attitude. Most of these critics are suddenly ‘holier than the Pope’ when it concerns a topic like this and their remarks reveal their prejudices. I had one big newspaper in Holland questioning why the black father himself wasn’t trying to rescue his kid stating ‘Do black fathers not love their children?’ I answered: the fathers head was chopped of by his son, and he was sitting in a wheelchair! ‘What does that tell me of your take on black people?” They didn’t (of course) print my answer.

There have been a number of films that have addressed the issues within Africa, and particularly child soldiers in the last few years (perhaps White Light being one of the first!). What attracted you to this subject matter?

My love for Africa, being born in Congo and having lived in Congo and Burundi for 13 years, was very important for making this movie. All of my films address one way or another the loss of innocence. The story of child soldiers is the most brutal and extreme version of loss of innocence. I truly believe that having a ‘normal’ loving childhood is the most important ingredient for becoming a balanced, happy adult. In a way, big parts of the continent of Africa don’t have the opportunity of ‘normal’ childhood, because big parts of the continent are cut off from the first and most important conditions of ‘normal’ childhood: food, water, medical treatment, education. It is a shame that Western society (and China takes over) still exploit Africa without returning the benefits properly.

What was behind your decision to cast Marco Bosato in the lead role?

He is the inspiration behind this story. He is a well-known ambassador of War Child, the ngo that deals with the issues of child soldiers. He persuaded me to write a screenplay on this story, I persuaded him to play the lead. I knew he would appeal to a big, big audience in Holland that wouldn’t be to eager to watch a movie about African child soldiers.

Do you think anything will be achieved by the film i.e. heightened awareness of the plight?

Knowledge is the first step to change. We had screenings for the United Nations in New York with many delegates watching the movie and discussing topics as weapon trade and child soldiers. I hope they will never forget Abu’s or Ama’s face. We had meetings with ministers of Foreign Affairs in Belgium, Holland and Uganda. The film is travelling to many political discussions at universities. The film is used by several ngo’s. There is an educational programme made by Amnesty International based on the movie for high school students. And a lot of things are still happening.

Can you see a Hollywood re-make in the offing?

No. I don’t think Hollywood can deal with the harsh reality of kids this age. Not in this time of comic books film making…

What is next on your agenda?

I’m writing a movie about the slavery in the former Dutch colony of Surinam, set in the 18th century. A love story with a harsh twist. And I’m working on a 2nd World War concentration camp movie, a concentration camp where they had the best ‘in-house’ cabaret…

We know little about the Dutch independent film industry over here. What is your take / overview on the current movement?

Every year two or three independent movies get their well earned releases abroad. Or win some good international festival prices. Last year it was e.g. Nothing Personal by Urszula Antoniak. The big problem of Dutch independent cinema is that they have to be produced for very, very little money and have to compete in the Dutch art houses with the best of every non-English spoken movie! The big theatres are dominated by the big English spoken movies with the well-known actors. Big commercial French, German, Italian, Spanish movies therefore occupy the art house screens. So earning money with your independent small Dutch movie is hardly possible.

Marcia Degia - Publisher

Marcia Degia, who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years, is the Publishing Editor of KOL Social Magazine. See website:

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