Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review of "Returned" Published in American Anthropologist

Film Review.

Returned: Child Soldiers of Nepal’s Maoist Army. Robert Koenig, dir., Robert Koenig and Brandon Kohrt, writers. 30 min. and 60 min.
Baltimore, MD: Adventure Production Pictures, 2008 and 2009 (60 minute version)

Northwestern University

This first-rate documentary tells the story of the civil war between the Maoist People’s Liberation Army and the government army of Nepal, which began in the mid-1990s and continued until a peace agreement in 2006. The film focuses on human rights and social welfare issues at the heart of the story: recruitment of children by an insurgency and social rehabilitation of children after the war. Children are signifiers in the film, like canaries in coal mines, of wider political and economic crises in Nepal. The seemingly exotic subject matter of civil violence and child soldiers in faraway “Shangra-la” confronts the viewer with broader questions about adult exploitation of the social dependency and cultural plasticity of children -- especially children at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder.

The “voices of the victims” are foregrounded – an ethnographic emphasis characteristic of anthropological research on violence. The word “victim” is appropriate here in both moral and legal senses, e.g., international standards proscribe recruiting children under18 for combat, and recruiting children under 15 is a war crime. Dramatic intensity in the film is generated by juxtaposing victim voices with voices of authority – such as, leaders of the insurgency, government officials, journalists, scholarly experts, as well as national and international welfare organizations working with former child combatants. In one interview a spokesperson for the Maoist insurgency denies that children were used as combatants – a statement then mixed with film footage of children carrying guns or engaged in battles, as well as footage of interviews with children describing participation in battle or seeing former playmates killed.

The superb picture and sound quality of the film captures both the lush beauty of the Nepalese landscape of mountains and valleys as well as the sounds of battles, military ceremonies, and political speeches. The technical quality of the film intensifies the formal tension of the narrative’s contrast between poignant natural (and human) beauty versus political violence and the exploitation of children.

By skillfully weaving together interviews with scenes of battles, violence in the streets, rebel group cultural programs for youth as well as a short photo narrative of feudal kingdoms in Nepalese history, political and ideological complexities emerge. Why is an insurrectionary movement against an oppressive, dictatorial government called a “terrorist” group, and what are the global politics legitimating that designation? How do we understand the contradictions between revolutionary idealistic doctrine and human rights abuses carried out in its name?

The film brilliantly captures the blurred line between “choice” and “forced recruitment” of children, which is a basic analytical problem in the anthropological study of child soldiers. Consider three, short examples. Ashish says he “joined” when he was 14, but his story describes being tricked into a rebel sponsored excursion for school children to a very distant place where children could not find their way back. Ashish’s father succinctly sums up the violent logic limiting the options of civilians and their children: if you fulfill the Maoist demands for food (or children), the government army will punish you; if you do not, the Maoists will kill you.

Maya explains that she “joined” when she was around 12 years old. Her mother begged the older women in the insurgency not to take her daughter, and pleaded further that they take some other girl in the village. From the mother’s point of view, neither she nor her daughter had a choice about this recruitment. Poverty and lack of opportunities make young girls easy prey for forced recruitment, and make many children vulnerable to the political rhetoric of resentment and revenge. The film powerfully captures the economics of gender (as well as caste and socioeconomic status) in the recruitment of children.

The last section of the film focuses on post-conflict rehabilitation of child soldiers, and highlights the social contradictions in this well-meaning endeavor. For example, Asha, who was recruited when she was 13, reminds us that “reintegration” is more complicated than the warm connotations evoked by this post-conflict policy term. Asha was stigmatized and forced to marry when she returned to her village, and attempted suicide to escape the physical abuse of her husband and in-laws. The last image of the film – a tear on Asha’s youthful cheek combined with her painfully cracking voice – sums up the suffering of children who lost their childhood to the physical violence of civil war in Shangra-la and are vulnerable in the aftermath to the subtle structural violence of post-war society.