‘Sixteen’, a thriller about former child soldier Jumah, opened the Commonwealth Film & Theatre Festival last week. Festival Directors Martin Petrov and Kathi Kamleitner sat down with its director Rob Brown and talked about his intense feature debut.
Interview by Martin Petrov & Kathi Kamleitner, Text by Martin Petrov
What inspired you to do a film on a former child soldier from the Democratic Republic of Congo?
I think for me the idea began with a character rather than with the plot. It works better for me, you can also see this in the short films I’ve done before. All my films tend to be about characters that are marginalized, which also applies to Jumah as a former child soldier coping in a different society. I knew that making a feature film would take years and I wanted to choose a character that was interesting and complex enough to keep me going.
Does the protagonist, Roger Nsengiyumva, have any personal connection to the story?
He’s not a former child soldier but both he and his mother survived the Rwandan genocide. He was too young to remember now, but it has really affected his mother – it was interesting to see how he interprets things seen through the experiences of another person. Roger co-starred with Emanuel Jal in a film called Africa United. Emanuel is himself a former child soldier saved by a British woman, so Roger was able to speak to him and discover parallels Jumah’s character.
You are more interested in marginalized characters. Do you think if you had put Jumah growing up in a wealthy family this would affect him differently?
This is a difficult question really. I think it would be an entirely different film. If he was growing up in a wealthy family perhaps it would be easier for him to forget his past.
Does the absence of the father figure contribute to Jumah’s personality shaping?
I think Jumah wouldn’t be able to handle another man on the scene; it would be too much of a confrontation. Also the idea was that Laura is – in a way – stuck with Jumah because he is a challenging teenager and she couldn’t be in a relationship while at the same time being supportive enough for him.
How did you secure the funding and the support to make your debut feature?
Initially we received £40.000 from the Bath Spa University where I and one of the film’s producers are part time lecturers. We had just launched a master’s degree in Feature Filmmaking, so the university decided to support us as it would be a fantastic teaching resource. Apart from that, we received industry support as well. ARRI Group for example provided an ALEXA studio – so we could shoot on the same camera that was used for the last James Bond film for free. But even with all this support, we didn’t have enough to pay members of the crew. Eventually we started a Kickstarter campaign to raise the necessary £15.000. Just before the launch we learnt that the film got accepted for the London Film Festival, but due to the press embargo we couldn’t use this information to tell people why funding via Kickstarter was so important – those were 30 hard days. At last we were successful because we could show the people who supported us that we already had the film and only needed the money for post-production, otherwise it is very difficult to find support.
When did you start working on the film?
I had it in my head since 2009 and finished the script in 2011, when it was selected to screen during the BAFTA Rocliffe New Writing Forum at the 2011 Edinburgh International Film Festival. This really gave me faith to continue and develop my idea even further. In September 2012 we secured the university’s support support, along with my agency United Agents which was very helpful with finding the cast. By the end of March 2013 we had everything we needed and shot the film in 18 days. We even managed to come under budget and finish a few hours before deadline.
Did you look at many actors for Jumah’s part?
That was the most difficult for me. I looked at several people but they all seemed inappropriate. But when I met Roger I knew that he was the right person. His recent film Africa United was of course a very different film but I could feel it from his presence that he could do well as Jumah, especially considering his past as survivor of the Rwandan genocide.
How long did the editing process last?
This is one of the most interesting parts actually. The editor was cutting the film as we went along, which I’ve never done before, but would recommend to all filmmakers. I was getting calls during the shooting process and was asked to get pick-up shots of the scenes that weren’t quite good enough. It’s very helpful, especially when you know that the flats you are shooting in are going to be demolished soon after and would probably not exist anymore if you needed to return and shoot some additional scenes.
What kind of research did you do in order to get all the information you needed for the background of your story?
To be honest, the conflict itself is not directly connected to Jumah’s story. The emotions around the conflict are more or less universal. I didn’t go to the DRC myself but I read many stories and memoirs of former child soldiers from Congo. I also spoke to researchers from the Human Rights Watchers and they connected me to other people, such as a Spanish priest who was retiring from being a child soldier at Sierra Leone.
Rob Brown is a filmmaker and writer based in Exeter. He teaches at Bath Spa University and is a part-time lecturer in the BA Creative Media Practice.