Directed by: Jean van de Velde | 120 minutes | drama | Actors: Marco Borsato, Thekla Reuten, Ricky Koole, Peter van den Begin, Andrew Kintu, Abby Mukiibi Nkaaga, Adrian Galley, Sam Oleko, Siebe Schoneveld, Frederick Mpuuga
For cynics or people who normally look down on Dutch films, “Wit Licht” only seems to be more grist for the mill. Because of the triad with the CD of the same name and the concert by Marco Borsato, some will consider it nothing more than an ego trip of the singer, and not something that deserves the serious attention of film lovers. The story turns out to be something else. Ultimately, “White Light” has little to do with vanity and, despite traditional action moments and heroic deeds, is primarily a catchy film that sheds light on the terrible fate of the child soldiers in Africa.
‘Wit Licht’ – the film – is a decidedly personal project for many involved, including director Jean van de Velde, who grew up in Africa himself, and lead actor Marco Borsato, who of course closely discusses the subject of child soldiers as War Child’s ambassador. heart goes. Although the film is partly a traditional adventure story with Borsato as a genuine action hero, “White Light” is motivated above all by the belief that the story of the child soldiers should be told and reach as many people as possible. And the good news is that the film is sure to leave a lasting impression on the visitors who come to watch it. “White Light” succeeds extremely well in bringing the dire situation in Africa to the fore in a tangible and confrontational way. “White Light” is not the first film to try to expose abuses on the African continent. Recent films such as “The Last King of Scotland” and “The Constant Gardener” – whose direct, personal film style inspired “White Light” – preceded the film. The fate of child soldiers is also increasingly coming to the fore, as previously seen in “Blood Diamond” and the television movie of the hit series “24”. But where the latter films devote a great deal of time and space to action and spectacle and the theme of child soldiers which fades into the background, this subject is central in “White Light”.
Of course the viewer is put in the shoes of Eduard Zuiderwijk in his dangerous mission to save Abu, the boyfriend of his son Thomas, but the perspective is regularly changed and the viewer sees and experiences what the children have to undergo themselves. The viewer witnesses when they are put in front of the rebel leader Obeke and, chanting, have to call him “daddy”, since their own parents are dead or simply should be forgotten. Disobedience or weakness is ruthlessly punished. The scene in which one of the children is ordered to murder another child with a machete is gruesome, under penalty of (own) death. Terrible is also the scene in which the children’s army has to shell a church full of people while they panic try to get out the windows or to dissuade the gunmen from their heinous act. Afterwards, only a few lifeless hands stick out of these windows, before cutting to a contemplative close-up of the rain pouring from the roof’s corrugated iron as if it were tears. These are moments to become silent.
The actions that the children are told also often cause nail-biting tension, which arises from the threat of the moment itself but also from the often very effective editing. This is the case in a very tense match between Abu and another child, where the two have to assemble a gun blindfolded and shoot the other first. When it comes to the tension generated, unexpected things sometimes happen, like when Abu and his friend secretly try to call for help via an army phone, but Abu only remembers the phone number of a game helpline and their plan falls through. This while the structure of this scene is traditional – with flashbacks of phone numbers and images of the villain allowing his back to our little heroes – and it is expected to end well. It is as if Van de Velde is playing with conventions by first immersing the viewer in a real film world and then shaking it up and making him realize that this is about bitter reality. It is a reality in which children are indoctrinated by the military and often estranged from their parents. In addition, the parents often do not even want their own child back because they think they are bewitched, Thekla Reuten’s character says in the film. Hard reality or not, Van de Velde has decided to give his film an accessible character by still applying the traditions of the action film and turn it into a clear adventure.
The film has a straightforward structure with a hero on a mission, a villain, thrilling car chases and fist fights, light romance, and an ending that doesn’t necessarily send the viewer home in a deep depression. It is perhaps the best way to acquaint the widest possible audience with the important theme, and in that sense the form is justifiable. Moreover, the film always feels sincere and Africa or the subject of the film is not used as an excuse to make a spectacular, “exotic” film and also to make a bit of decoration with a pathetic story. No, it is noticeable that “White Light” is a film from the heart and with sincere intentions, which is also clearly reflected in Marco Borsato’s acting at times when he is really confronted with the subject that is so dear to him. The scene in which he approaches rebel leader – and old acquaintance – Obeke from man to man about the children he has “recruited” into his army is convincing. Appealing to the man’s dignity, he argues that if he will – perhaps – ever be president, it does not make a good impression to have children in the military. “Let the children go”, says Eduard. “They don’t belong in a war”. Then comes a fairly intelligent rebuttal from Obeke when he points out that Americans also sent sixteen-year-olds to Vietnam, so that the lower life expectancy of the average African means that there is not much difference between the two countries. While there are other arguments at play that make Obeke’s case weak, it is a surprising nuance in a story in which good and evil appear to be clearly distinct from each other at first.
The direction of the film is smooth and to-the-point, and the camerawork of the experienced Theo van de Sande beautifully compelling: whether it concerns small subtle character moments, or the exciting action scenes in and around an airplane in the last act of the film. And the unambiguity and lack of (melo) dramatic bombast works in favor of the film, areas where the aforementioned “Blood Diamond” sputtered a bit. In that film they wanted to do and treat everything at the same time, with the result that no subject gets enough attention and the various elements are diluted. It was an action movie with big messages, romance, and an inner conflicted character, with the subjects “blood diamonds”, Western guilt questions, and child soldiers. Lots of comments – from Jennifer Connolly’s left-wing journalist, for example – came across as hollow or too politically correct, and the villain was an outright monster, complete with a scary, scarred eye. The film’s great asset was Leonardo di Caprio’s strong acting, but the development of his character left much to be desired. “White Light” has a stronger focus and less distraction than “Blood Diamond”. In addition, Marco Borsato’s Eduard Zuiderwijk may not be as complex and intensely designed as Di Caprio’s Danny Archer, but he mainly functions as an instrument to propel the plot forward. As James McAvoy in The Last King of Scotland, he observes the horrors in Africa as a rather naive Westerner. And his naivety makes it “plausible” that he would undertake such an insane mission. And Borsato as an actor does what he has to do. Not every piece of dialogue finds the right charge or tone, but the majority of the film is the singer – and now the actor – surprisingly effective and he stands up well between colleagues Thekla Reuten, Ricky Koole and Peter van den Begin. Especially in stressful situations and at hectic moments – when he has to run and fly and make comments in the meantime – he convinces. The controversy over his acting debut thus turns out to be a non-issue. All the more so because Marco Borsato is only at the service of the larger story of the child soldiers, which is told in an honest and penetrating manner with “White Light”. Dialogues and characters are not always profound, and purely as an adventure film, the film will not cause much of a sensation, but in combination with the gripping content and the compelling visual language, “White Light” is a sure success.