Making its US premier recently at Sundance, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s first narrative feature, Johnny Mad Dog, delivers a challenging and forceful view of Liberian child soldiers who are part of a rebellion to overthrow the government. Taking a break from the chill of Park City, we sat down with Jean to find out more about the equally chilling subject of his film, the rhythm of cinema, and how an intensely powerful and realistic film can be just as effective as a documentary in exposing important global issues.
What ignited your interest in filmmaking?
Maybe it was just the desire to tell stories you’ve never seen before – to tell stories that we don’t want to see – in this case, child soldiers. No one wants to show this reality because it’s brutal; it’s quite difficult to watch. I think cinema has to show the things that we don’t always want to see. I think [cinema] doesn’t only have to be entertainment, but can also show the world as it actually is. For me, cinema has the power to not only show the reality of the world, but can sometimes change it.
For example, we were trying to find a solution to help reintegrate these child soldiers… after the war. We screened this movie at the UN in New York. It was interesting for me because sometimes you screen it for movie people and sometimes it’s for political people. I really like that with cinema, you can do both. In this case, to screen the movie at the UN was important and necessary. I was really glad to do it because this movie can hopefully change the way they fight against the users of child soldiers, and create programs that try to reintegrate of these boys [into society].
Your first film, Carlitos Medellín, was a documentary about fighting kids in Colombia. But you originally wanted to make a feature film more like Johnny Mad Dog right?
So did you come across Emmanuel Dongala’s novel for Carlitos Medellín or after?
After in fact. I went to Colombia in 2003 and it was too dangerous to make the movie because they were in civil war. When I shot Johnny Mad Dog in Liberia, the war was over so it was possible to shoot, but in Colombia, they were fighting in the street. So I couldn’t really imagine doing a movie at the same time and getting the people I work with killed… [but] I really wanted to cover this situation in Santo Domingo Savio, so I decided to make a documentary. I just improvised…
When I came back to France I was quite disappointed, not to have made a feature film… Somebody told me about Emmanual Dongala’s novel Johnny Mad Dog and when I read the book I thought, “Ok this is great! It’s an amazing story and it’s really interesting to have the two point of views – one from the child soldiers and one from the girl during the last weeks of civil war in Africa.” My idea was to go to Liberia and to confront the reality of the book. Emmanuel is from the Congo… he knew all the events, and was one of the guys who suffered because of the war… so the book was quite realistic, but it was important for me to understand these boys’ reality…
It was in 2004, one year after the war, when I went there for the first time. I met these boys and told them, “I want to make a movie about child soldiers, so I need to hear about your experiences.” They told me, “If you want to do a movie about child soldiers, you have to do it here, in our country, with us. We are the ones who really know about this.” But at the time it was quite difficult because there was a transitional government running the country, we couldn’t get insurance to do the movie – so I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to come and shoot my movie in Liberia.
It was also quite difficult to finance this kind of movie. It took time… [but] finally we shot this movie in January 2006. It was really the right time for Liberia because they had just elected a new president, a woman named Ellen Jhonson-Sirleaf, so it was a positive way to show the international community that a movie could be made in this country. It was also an opportunity for people to work as well as being a testimony of this war. So they really helped us… that was really important because you can’t do a movie like this in Liberia if the government doesn’t help you… For them it was also an important matter because it was the first movie ever shot in this country.
Did you ever feel the need for security during the production?
No, it wasn’t that dangerous. In the beginning the UN wasn’t really aware of this project… [but] doing a movie [like this] can be trouble, kids walking in the streets with weapons, we didn’t know what could happen. So they didn’t really help us in the beginning, but because the government was really pushing to do this movie, they didn’t want to go against them. We had to inform a lot of people – the whole population in the city – to tell them that the war was not coming again, but that it was a movie with fake weapons – and we would be shooting in the street – so don’t have to be afraid! We did a campaign like this with the government and the ministry of information… now when you go to Liberia, everybody knows aboutJohnny Mad Dog.
How was the production received? Even though you had the crew and the equipment all around, was the sound of gunfire an issue for the residents?
Well, we couldn’t use blank ammunition because of an embargo in Liberia – you can’t even import fake weapons. That was the main problem we had in the preparation. They told us, “There’s an embargo so you can’t import weapons, even for your movie.” So we thought, “How can we do a war movie without weapons?” Finally we found a solution… All the weapons in the movie are actually toys from Japan. They were quite similar to a real AK-47, they were quite heavy also, but they shot paintballs. It was even a bit difficult for the boys because they were used to the real weapons – they knew how to check the weapons and how to use them. But the guns didn’t make noise, so we could shoot in the street without the sound of gunfire scaring everybody.
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