Torstein Grude, the director of Mogadishu Soldier, wanted to make a film that would be as authentic as possible – and was surprised of the outcome.
How did you come up with the idea for this film?
I once found myself trapped in the Burundian civil war and holed up in a Bunker in Bujumbura.
I had some helpers there who made sure I was safe and among them were many former child soldiers who had seen nothing, but war their whole life.
Upon hearing some of their life stories and peculiar world views, I became sure I wanted to make a film with them at some point. At the same time, I was thinking about how to make authentic films. I increasingly saw myself and my documentary team as obstacles between “reality” and the audience.
It is unavoidable that our background, our worldview, our professionalism and aesthetic concepts would enter the footage and in my view rob it of real authenticity.
From this I realized I wanted to experiment with a kind of remote-directing where the actual shooting should be done by non-professionals. After the end of the civil war in Burundi, the soldiers that I knew were being re-stationed in Mogadishu, Somalia, and so I asked them to take part in the experiment.
How much background information did you have about the situation in Somalia?
I had quite a lot of information about the situation in Somalia, but in a way it was not really necessary as this from the start was an experiment in approach to the art of documentary filmmaking. It was an experiment to achieve authenticity within a war situation and with those fighting it both behind and in front of the camera.
I wanted to see the world as they see it without being a filter myself. And what I received through the tapes was an entirely different outlook than what I expected. I was expecting some kind of sentimental pathos where they saw themselves as heroes doing this sacrifice for the freedom of the Somali people. However, there was no such thing in the material. There were no narratives of the kind that western soldiers create of good guys and bad guys. The material showed that the soldiers were motivated primarily by the possibility of having work and to earn money for their families back home.
Could you tell about the editing process?
There must have been tons of material to start with. We had more than 500 tapes of material and it was shot entirely by non-professionals who had no concept of filmmaking and its conventions. So yes, it was very chaotic and messy. Quite a lot of the material had to be discarded due to being totally over-exposed, out of focus, too short in length and without sound.
After logging everything, we realized that there were no characters and character development in the way we are used to. So we were dealing with a collective main character so to speak.
We also knew that we had the soldiers’ stay in Mogadishu as a frame, that we had them arriving and then 523 tapes later, they leave. So these 14 months became a frame for us, and that is already something.
What was very important was to stay true to the approach of the material and that also extended to the editing process. We could not use the typical tool-box of an editor.
The editor Niels Pagh Anderssen said it was like I was asking an acclaimed first violinist to intentionally play out of tune. And that’s what he did.
What is the message of the film?
The film does not have “A MESSAGE”.., that’s an integral point to the exercise. There is no filmmaker here with an agenda and a simplified narrative. But the film gives unique access to the experience of what life is like for poor people fighting for a living in a foreign country. There are thousands of little messages in that material for the perceptive audience.
The suicide bombings in Mogadishu continue, just last week there was another car bomb attack. How do this kind of news make you feel?
I am sorry for the ones blowing themselves up like that. These poor people find themselves convinced it is the right thing to do and the consequences are absolutely horrible for all the victims.
it shows that Al-Shabaab are still very much taking an active role even though they were seemingly defeated by AMISOM and Somali forces earlier. From their hiding places in the countryside they now regularly launch guerilla attacks in Mogadishu.
You have founded the production company Piraya Films. On the website you describe that all the films are created in the spirit of social engagement, intent on raising awareness, solidarity and people’s ability to contribute to positive social change. Do you believe that cinema can change the world?
Some of the films we’ve been involved in do really travel the world and reach a very large audience (e.g. Gulabi Gang, Yodok Stories, The Act of Killing, The Look of Silence). These films do influence the ones seeing them, but it is of course difficult to measure the impact. But, I do think that absolutely, one step at a time, films do change our outlook and through that the world.
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