An anthropologist of violence | INTERVIEW WITH JONATHAN LITTELL

Last Updated: April 14, 2017By Tags: ,

Before he wrote a novel and directed a film Jonathan Littell was, for a time, an international aid worker. He managed big-scale logistical operations in Africa and attended to war fronts from Bosnia to Syria as part of humanitarian relief teams. Littell, who doesn’t consider himself an optimist, is predictably not a stranger to the savagery of man. That he should be persuasive when writing or making films about it shouldn’t come as a surprise, either.

His novel “Les Bienveillantes” (2006), which takes place during the Holocaust, earned Littell a Goncourt and a Grand Prix de l’Académie Française prize. His film, “Wrong Elements,” which was shown in Cannes as part of the official selection, examines the lives of reformed child soldiers who, under the command of Joseph Kony and his LRA faction, helped to commit some of the worse atrocities of the twentieth century.

New York-born Littell grew up in Cannes, where our meeting took place. Unsurprisingly for a literary type from New York he’s not particularly fond of the town’s rustic artificiality. “I don’t like this place here at all.”

Listen to the interview on Soundcloud:

In “Wrong Elements” Uganda’s child-soldiers are shown proceeding from indoctrination to wielding large unwieldy guns and terrorizing their countrymen. Some got to walk away and go through a rehabilitation program in order to reenter society. Littell got close to three of these former child-soldiers and followed them as they went back over the events of the conflict.

Littell worked “Wrong Elements” with Marie-Hélène Dozo, a France-based editor who’s collaborated with the Dardenne Brothers, Mahamat-Saleh Haroun and Marielle Heller in the past. Editing for “Wrong Elements” took twenty-seven weeks.

How were you able to establish a link with the main characters?
With Geofrey and Mike it was much easier, they spent less time in the bush. The ones in Central Africa, in the army, they were recent defectors. They had been in the bush for fifteen years. Geofrey spent three years in the bush and horrible things happened to him during that period, but he’s been back to normal life. They had psychological debriefing, they were given money for education, that’s why Mike and Geofrey speak English. All this made them normal people again. The other guys came out of the bush, went to the army, and then went back to the bush. They’re still basically LRA.

Why direct a documentary? Why not make a fiction film?
Documentary for me was the only option. That’s the only form in which thought it would be possible to get beyond this problem [of Uganda’s child-soldiers and the atrocities that this caused]. In “Wrong Elements” you can assume your position as a white person, looking at a reality that’s alien to you, and you can give that reality all its space, for the way that you organize your approach, the relationship is much more honest in the documentary form.

What was the editing process like for the film?
We spent twenty-seven weeks for the editing. We had a 120 hours of rushes (the film is two hours long), eight hours of archive (we kept about three minutes, great material), I was fortunate to work with Marie-Hélène Dozo, one of the best editors in Europe, such finesse. It was really a collaboration. She is like the co-author of the film. We wrote the film in the editing room. [The idea was to show the] global career of an LRA, from their kidnapping, indoctrination, life in the bush, coming home, and the after effects of coming home.

Marie-Hélène’s first edited rough cut was eight hours. Getting from eight to six hours was OK. Then it was just one day when I cut an hour and a half in less than hour.

[ed- the DVD will include a lot of the footage that was edited out from the theatrical version]

What are plans for distribution stateside?
Amazon is interested but nothing has been concluded yet and Le Pacte are trying their damned best to sell it.

We would like to sell it in America because the U.S. is the one country that has an interest in the LRA, George Clooney is involved in activism [concerning this region and these events]. A lot of the American-made films on the subject have been pretty awful. I’m just trying to precisely show the complexity and the ambiguity of the situation.

The LRA is a movement that has been caricatured. A typical description by the BBC is, “the mad men prophets roam around the jungles with his army of drug addled zombies children army.” I wanted to be respectful of the situation and show that, even if there’s an insane side to it, there’s also a political side to it. So we explained why they’re rebelling, why they’re fighting.

This [conflict] doesn’t come out of nowhere, there’s political context to it. They [LRA] believed they were fighting for a good cause. It was wrong, they now know that. I wanted to be respectful of the people and the complexities of the situation.

Does the U.S. have a share of responsibility in what happened in Uganda ?
It’s not a situation in which the U.S. fucked up the most. Obviously, the U.S., and England, supported Musevini [ed- the president of Uganda since 1986] from the beginning, [but] they’re getting more and more pissed off at him because of the gay rights issue and because he keeps getting reelected. But Uganda is an essential ally, they contribute major troops to Somalia. They are involved in the Sudan conflict. America needs Uganda, and Musevini is very clever about it.

The LRA aspect has a lot more to do with internal politics and the politics of evangelists, all linked to the South Sudan issue. It’s very complex. The only reason Obama sent troops was not for foreign policy reasons but for internal reasons. It’s a very light deployment, 100 special forces. They’re bored to tears. I’ve spoken to them. They come from Afghanistan and Iraq and they just don’t like sitting on their asses, they just do logistics and support [operations].

I don’t see a hidden agenda [coming from the U.S.] they’re just interesting in having a foothold there.

What’s your opinion of the U.N. and the world Bank and their role?
World bank and UN are different subjects. The history of World Bank and IMF intervention in Africa I consider to be very disastrous, it’s driven by a capitalist ideology so it hasn’t been a very positive track record. The UN is a mess structurally because of the way it was designed and conceived. They spend massive amounts of money for very little results.

Are you referring to Africa specifically?
There are some things that they do well. But the MONUSCO peacekeeping operation in Congo is a disaster. It’s good that it exists, it does keep the violence down to a certain extent, but they could do so much more.

How does it all end, then?
The day Kony dies everyone can go home. It’s no accident that everyone is talking about regional peacekeeping, and Africanization and delegating to the locals. Because when the white people try and help, they don’t do a very good job. I’m not sure the locals will do a very good job. That’s why it will be good to see the result of the Hissène Habré trial [a former Congolese despot who ruled with an iron fist over his countrymen from 1982 to 1990].

I’ve never been an optimist. “Pessimists” is a reasonable description. I went to Syria in 2012 and spent three weeks. I thought at that time, that someone like me should bring back some information, because it was a complete media vacuum.

Are there any future film projects in the works for you?
Nothing concrete for now but I would like to make another movie, fiction, perhaps.

“Wrong Elements,” documentary [135 mins.] Directed by Jonathan Littell
No U.S. distribution as of yet.


Still from “Wrong Elements”