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UP FRONT: MOVIES

Crises of a continent

The tragic use of children as soldiers in Africa is among subjects of films at a festival here.

October 19, 2006|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

IN the documentary "Uganda Rising," we are introduced to the spectacle of thousands of African boys and girls making a nightly pilgrimage from their rural villages to nearby towns, seeking refuge so they won't be abducted by a rebel group called the Lord's Resistance Army and turned into child soldiers or -- in the case of the girls -- sex slaves.

In another film called "In a Soldier's Footsteps," a former Ugandan child soldier living in Denmark returns to Africa to free his son, who himself has become a child soldier.

And in "The Empire in Africa," a film crew that initially went to Sierra Leone to document how rebel forces terrorize innocent men, women and children by hacking off their limbs, discovers that Western governments are ignoring similar atrocities conducted by the very troops brought in from neighboring countries to battle the rebels.

The documentaries, each with disturbing images rarely seen on the U.S. evening newscasts, are among 80 films -- features, documentaries and shorts -- screening at the 10th annual Hollywood Film Festival, which runs through Monday. The films will be shown at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

Championing all of these films is Carlos de Abreu, the founder and executive director of the Hollywood Film Festival. An African of Portuguese descent who was raised in Mozambique, De Abreu and his family were forced to flee Mozambique in the mid-1970s when rebel forces overthrew Portugal's colonial rule.

De Abreu said Western governments and prominent people, including former President Clinton and Microsoft founder Bill Gates, are trying to help Africa, but for the most part the West is ignoring the crisis on the continent, where "people are being cut and killed every day."

The festival concludes Monday evening with a gala award banquet at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, where two African American actors who have been receiving early award-season buzz are scheduled to receive top honors. One recipient is Forest Whitaker, who is receiving the festival's actor of the year honor for his role as 1970s Ugandan strongman Idi Amin in "The Last King of Scotland." The other is Derek Luke, who will receive the festival's "breakthrough actor of the year" award for "Catch a Fire," in which he portrays a South African family man who turns to terrorism to fight the apartheid regime that brutalized his family.

"I think it's great when people acknowledge your work," said Whitaker, whose role in "Bird" captured best actor honors at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival. "I've been working a couple of decades now, working really hard, and for people to take a second and stop and say, 'We appreciate your work, we like what you do,' it means something to me."

An actor's research

Whitaker said that in the month prior to principal photography in Uganda on "The Last King of Scotland," he conducted research on Amin, a flamboyant and menacing leader of almost mythic proportions, who ruled the eastern African nation with an iron fist for a decade. Whitaker said he watched documentaries, listened to audiocassettes, met Amin's generals and government ministers and even conferred with one of the late dictator's mistresses to try to understand the man. The actor also visited places where many tortures and murders occurred during Amin's reign of terror.

"I got to see him in many different environments -- with children

During Amin's rule, Uganda was plunged into economic ruin, and an estimated 300,000 people died. Amin was deposed in 1979 and went into exile with his five wives and dozens of children. He died in 2003 in Saudi Arabia at the age of 78.

Although Whitaker doesn't make excuses for the depths of Amin's cruelty, the actor noted that prior to coming to power in a bloody 1971 coup, Amin was considered by some to be a great soldier and leader.

"When you talk to Ugandans, they have mixed views about Amin," Whitaker said. "On one hand, he killed hundreds of thousands of people. On the other hand, he liberated them."

Amin was long gone by 2003, when Canadian producer Alison Lawton, the mother of two young boys, ventured into Uganda to make an educational film. The small film she initially envisioned would ultimately expand into a feature-length documentary after she discovered the nightly exodus of tens of thousands of children from rural villages as they tried to evade the Lord's Resistance Army.

Each evening as the sun set in northern Uganda, she said, children were trained to grab their blankets and, often in bare feet, set out for safety in nearby villages where they would sleep under verandas, or in tents, or at the sides of roads in order to avoid being abducted from their huts by the LRA.

She estimates that during Uganda's long civil war, 25,000 children have been abducted by the LRA, which is headed by a mysterious guerrilla fighter and cult leader named Joseph Kony.

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