Long before Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 created a pop buzz around the Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony and his murderous Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), there was a criminal indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC), an indigenous peace process involving face-to-face negotiations with Kony, and a three-nation military assault on Kony’s camps in an all-out effort to arrest him. There was also an acclaimed documentary filmmaker/producer team in the field taking a serious look, over five years of work, at the dedicated, complex, often contradictory international approaches to ending, once and for all, the horrific violence and child abductions perpetrated by Kony and the LRA to this day. In Peace vs. Justice, now premiering in film festivals across Europe, award-winning director Klaartje Quirijns follows an engrossing array of characters between the ICC’s headquarters in the Hague and Kony’s killing fields in Uganda and Congo. Including never-before-seen footage of Kony and probing interviews with those closest to Kony and his crimes, Quirijns raises critical questions about the prospects for peace and justice in the Kony saga. Warscapes is pleased to include the never-before-seen “making of” video for Peace vs. Justice with editor Michael Bronner’s conversation with the director.
Michael Bronner: How did you get the idea to explore the international case against Joseph Kony in a documentary?
Klaartje Quirijns: Stacy Sullivan, a producer I’ve worked with and a former journalist with a long background covering conflict and counterterrorism, was training journalists in Uganda. We were talking, and she told me that really no one in Northern Uganda was supportive of the International Criminal Court’s indictment of Joseph Kony, and it immediately struck me: Here is a story!
MB: What year was this?
KQ: It was 2007. I was immediately intrigued. I had been under the impression that the ICC was a great organization doing great things in Uganda. Of course, it’s not at all that simple.
MB: Give us a bit of background…
KQ: The people of Northern Uganda had been fighting and struggling against the LRA for years and years. Betty Bigombe, a main character in my film, had been involved in various efforts to negotiate a peace agreement with Kony and the LRA beginning in the late eighties. She’s an incredible woman – she literally put her life on the line in these negotiations, traveling out into the bush to meet Kony. She reached what she believed was a critical juncture in 2003 – she was convinced that peace was within reach – but Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, who was probably under pressure of the army, made a decision to end the conflict militarily. It was incredibly violent, and it failed. That’s when he asked for help and made a request to the ICC to intervene. Of course, it was not a cold request; the ICC was interested in getting involved.
MB: The ICC indicted Kony…
KQ: That is correct , in 2005. So Kony wasn’t really such an obscure figure before the release of Invisible Children’s video. He was, in fact, the very first person to have been indicted by the ICC – in a highly-public indictment, which created a whole new set of issues.
MB: The indictment wasn’t just for Kony, right?
KQ: Kony and the top commanders of the LRA. When I was filming, I met and interviewed Kony’s right-hand man, his top commander, Sam Kolo, who had been involved in the peace negotiations. He told me that the announcement of the indictments made Kony even more aggressive, more vicious. As he says in the film, Kony’s reaction was to feel hunted not just by the Ugandan government, but now by the whole world. Kony started to kill even more. What I thought was interesting – and important to really consider – was the fact that the peace negotiations were jeopardized by the indictments. That was the reason I wanted to make this film. When you really look at the situation, it is very different than you would think.
MB: You would think Ugandans would be happy to have the ICC intervene, after so many years of war...
KQ: The people in northern Uganda were very relieved initially. Finally, they thought, they would have the support of the international community and actually succeed in getting rid of Kony.
MB: But then sentiment turned against the ICC?
KQ: Well, people got really frustrated because they discovered the ICC has no teeth – no army, no way of executing the arrest warrants. The ICC works with national armies, in this case with the Ugandan army, which had failed for 22 years to get rid of Kony. In short, I think when the ICC, chief prosecutor, Moreno Ocampo, promised to “end the violence,” people believed him. His failure to keep that promise was very disappointing.
MB: What was it like to interview Sam Kolo, the former LRA commander? He was implicated in a lot of Kony's crimes…
KQ: Yes. It was one of the most disturbing interviews I did. The camera man, who had just had a baby, couldn't get over this interview, knowing that this man had probably killed babies by banging them against trees, which was one of the LRA’s known methods. I think he is one of the most opportunistic people I’ve met. He deserted when he saw that Kony would never be the president of Uganda, which is what Kony’s soldiers were always made to believe. There was an amnesty for all the LRA people, except the few who were indicted by the ICC, and Kolo simply left [and went back to a civilian life. You cannot even imagine what this man has done. It is very weird to see this community in which victims and perpetrators live together, see each other on the streets…
MB: But that is very much a central theme of your film – that the prospect of someone like Sam Kolo coming in from the cold and rejoining the community is a dynamic many Ugandans support...
KQ: This is part of their culture. We are brought up in an individualistic society: If you do something wrong, we put you in a corner, and if you have done something terrible, we put you in a jail cell. I think to understand a bit of Ugandan culture you have to understand that people see themselves in terms of a whole community, and if somebody does something terrible, you have to forgive, because you want to restore relationships. You want to bring people back into the fold, to reintegrate them into society.
MB: There is a specific ritual you show in the film, called “mato oput”…
KQ: Adversaries are made to drink the bitter fluid that comes from the oput tree, and in drinking the bitter juice, they swallow the bitterness of the conflict.
In a way, I think it is a very meaningful and effective ritual: You admit guilt; you pay someone back; and you swallow the bitterness in order to live together again.
MB: That sounds nice as a ritual, but what's astounding in your film is that they're actually implementing it with people who have committed really unfathomable and incredibly violent crimes...
KQ: Yes, and the people I filmed in the camps for internally displaced persons (nearly two million Ugandans have been forced from their homes because of the war against the LRA) basically said: “We will even forgive Kony and do mato oput with him.” Of course, opinions are mixed about this, but the message I got from people there was: “Please bring back our children – that is number one – and if that means we have to forgive Kony, we will do so.”
MB: The characters you follow are really the heart of the film. Can you briefly introduce the other main interviewees?
KQ: The most important person in the film is Betty Bigombe. She risks her life by hiking into the bush to meet Joseph Kony as part of the effort to negotiate a peace. Through her journey, with its high points and frustrations, we realize that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Uganda do not want the justice that the ICC is offering. They want peace, which as you will see in the film, is not necessarily compatible.
Matthew Brubacher is a young ICC investigator who lived in The Hague when I started filming in 2007. He gathers evidence against Kony and tries to disrupt the activities of the LRA. Matthew is a young, attractive, ambitious lawyer who believes in the rule of law. During the course of filming, he ends up leaving the ICC – I think because he come to see the court’s limitations – and moves to the Congo to work for the UN peacekeeping mission there.
Lacambel is a charismatic radio host who introduces us to ex-LRA soldiers, many of whom he has singlehandedly convinced to desert Joseph Kony and come back to the community. He is the storyteller of the film, and plays an important role. I feel very ambivalent about him. On one hand, he is a warm, great guy who lured thousands of soldiers out of the bush. On the other hand, he is a bit arrogant, and in his face-to-face dealings with Kony, he once left a female member of his group behind, against her will, because Kony had asked for her. I find that shocking and unacceptable, without a valid cultural explanation.
MB: You spend time in the film with former child soldiers who have returned – many in response to Lacambel’s radio broadcasts. I found it very powerful when you linger on their faces, even when they are not speaking, letting their expressions play out…
KQ: When you don’t speak the same language, you try to communicate differently. You try to hear something from their expressions. For me as a filmmaker, the silences sometimes say more than the spoken words. With Lucy, the girl I interview who was a child soldier, her expressions were so strong – the sadness and the fear that she lives with all the time. She is constantly afraid she will encounter her torturers [who forced her into the life of a child soldier] in the village where she lives.
MB: Tell me about the title, Peace vs. Justice.
KQ: Well, it conveys the core of the film. People in Northern Uganda want to have peace, by their terms, and people in the West believe in a specific form of justice. I admit it’s an overly simplistic title; it’s never so black and white. What I have learned from following the story, from Betty Bigombe in particular, is that you first have to have peace, and then you can talk about justice. What is the purpose of indicting when there is still a violent conflict underway? Watch my film and you will hear Sam Kolo, Kony’s right-hand man, say it plainly: Kony became more aggressive, more violent, the moment the indictments were announced. Does this mean you shouldn’t indict? That’s not what I’m saying. But I question why the ICC needed to indict with a huge press conference and a lot of publicity, which seems to be about something other than justice for the people of Northern Uganda. It would have been more effective to issue a secret indictment [as they did in the former Yugoslavia] so that the one being indicted doesn’t react violently or go deeper into hiding, both of which happened in this case.
MB: I took note that your film begins not in Uganda with Kony's soldiers and his victims, but rather in the steely glass offices of the International Criminal Court. Can you explain the choice?
KQ: Globalisation brings new conflicts that have serious implications for international humanitarian law. My film shows the contrast between the ideals of the ICC and what is happening on the ground in Africa. In The Hague, well-educated, idealistic, top-rate lawyers are working to end the cycle of impunity enjoyed by people like Joseph Kony, while trying to implement a global rule of law. But what if the victims of heinous crimes don’t want the Court’s justice? What if these people view it as a colonialist imposition and want to administer their own form of justice instead? What if the ICC’s actions interfere with indigenous peace processes? In Northern Uganda, people are clamoring for the ICC to drop the indictments and leave. It is compelling to cut back and forth between these worlds.
MB: The young ICC investigator, Matthew Brubacher, at one point says: "Peace versus justice is a false question." His point is that humans should be entitled to both.
KQ: On paper he is right: It is a false question, and people have the right to both. The real world is another story.
MB: Visually in your film, the contrast in which you shoot these two worlds is striking. The ICC is shot in cold, steely light – monochrome, almost devoid of color – while the African scenes are bursting with life. Surely this is intentional...
KQ: Yes! I wanted to create a mood to emphasize the story. But it is also what I observed.
MB: Betty Bigombe calls the ICC investigation “superficial” – not related to the real suffering of the Ugandan people. Is that fair?
KQ: I think the most incredible people work at the ICC, and no, I think they do have an eye and ear for the real situation. Having said that, they have very firm and fixed views about what should happen: Justice, no matter what. And listening to Betty, I think there are more important considerations: First stop the killing, and then we can talk about justice.
MB: You've been working on your film for more than five years. What was your reaction to Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” Youtube video exploding onto the Internet?
KQ: At first, I thought, “Great! Finally someone has come along and gotten attention for a story like this. When I was looking for funding for my film, all the broadcasters told m, “Oh, no, not again – poor little African children oppressed by a horrible man.” I am not joking! This was the response I got from sophisticated European broadcasters. So with “Kony 2012,” I thought, “Good news.” But watching the film makes me angry. It is so simplistic. Please take a look at the situation. Please see what has been done over the past 20 years to try to end the conflict. Please listen to the people of Uganda. And please take a critical look at the ICC; aren’t there better ways to approach this situation? These are questions that I tried to find insight into. You start a film and you never know where it’s going to take you or how it is going to end. Most importantly, you don’t know what you will learn along the way, and to me that is the most important thing. You want to gain insight into the world beyond what you see on the surface.
MB: After all your research, do you believe there is a military solution to the threat Kony poses?
KQ: Well, up to this point, everybody who has tried has failed: the Ugandan army, then the Ugandans in conjunction with the Sudanese, the Congolese, and since 2008, the Americans assisting as well. Even with the 100 special forces President Obama sent in October, there are no signs of Kony. I am afraid that all the publicity (including Invisible Children’s attempts to turn Kony into a celebrity) doesn’t really help those who are trying to catch him. He now makes sure that no one in his party has a satellite phone. He’s drastically limited his contacts with other people. He is a very smart guy who knows the jungle better than anyone. I don't know if Obama’s new batch of special forces will really help. I hope so, of course. But how can you get a guy when you cannot fire upon the people around him? ?
MB: President Obama has said that US troops are permitted to return fire if fired upon, but will never be in a position of firing upon child soldiers. It’s hard to imagine capturing Kony without just that.
KQ: That’s right.
MB: Your film doesn't offer easy answers.
KQ: I think it is important for the viewer to form his/her own opinion. But I think we all agree: The violence and killings Kony is orchestrating have to end. The question is how?