Oneka is 12 years old. He is also a former child soldier, forced to kill and fight by rebels who came upon Oneka and his grandmother on a walk one day, brutally killed her and kidnapped the young boy.
Oneka manages to escape and returns to his village. But he has changed from his time as a child soldier, where he learned to deaden himself inside to commit barbaric atrocities. He wrestles with the trauma of his past, retreating into dreams and fantasies of a normal, more comfortable life.
But his fantasies begin to turn into nightmares, as his trauma bleeds into them. His dreamscapes become increasingly disturbing — and soon twist back into reality, as the rebels come back to his village and force him to stand in front of his parents and sister, offering him a choice between life and death.
Inspired by the true stories of former child soldiers, writer-director Yangzom Brauen’s powerful drama has much in common with fantasy and horror films as it does with social and political dramas. Its form and style play with the malleability of time and place, blending disturbing naturalistic scenes of violence with flights of grounded fantasy, rendered with luminous images and lyrical camerawork.
There is also the harrowing emotional intensity inherent to horror — only here, the horror is based on the real-life experiences of child soldiers in Africa. Many of these experiences are not visually dramatized in the film, but they’re depicted in Oneka’s monologue, which runs as a voiceover throughout the film. Voiceover can be a narrative crutch, but here it plays lays out just how Oneka was inculcated and brainwashed into a traumatic, horrific culture of violence.
Many of the atrocities mentioned by Oneka are mercifully not visualized, but their details bleed into the fantasies he escapes into, whether blood is running out of a faucet or the severed limbs of people he was forced to kill. The “intrusions” of Oneka’s violent past increase and young actor Roland Kilumbu captures Oneka’s haunted heaviness with gravity well beyond his years. As his past catches up to Oneka, the suspense and pacing intensifies, until fantasy collides into reality in a climax devastating in its starkness and brutality.
“Born In Battle” is about an almost unbearable subject matter, one that violates all norms of human decency. Yet child soldiers deserve to have their stories witnessed and heard, often for their healing. The storytelling takes us inside the emotional and imaginative landscape of a child, where they often naturally retreat to, even in the best of circumstances.
But even in this sacred space, trauma and violence finds Oneka, showing just how damaged he is from having innocence wrenched away from him, only to be thrown into the darkest impulses of humanity. The final images of the film offer some consolation in their cinematic transcendence, but any resolution won — by Oneka and by the viewer — is as fragile as peace.