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GOCRITIC! Karlovy Vary 2018

GoCritic! Review: The Mercy of the Jungle

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- Our Nick Mastrini writes about Joël Karekezi’s Toronto Discovery entry which follows two soldiers in the Second Congo War

GoCritic! Review: The Mercy of the Jungle

Rwandan director Joël Karekezi’s confidentsecond feature, The Mercy of the Jungle [+see also:
film review
trailer
interview: Joël Karekezi
film profile
]
, follows on from his 2013 directorial debut Imbabazi by further exploring conflict in the central African region. Screening as part of Toronto International Film Festival’s Discovery section with its North American premiere, Karekezi’s latest follows two soldiers accidentally left behind by their comrades during the Second Congo War.

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When their troops leave camp one morning without them, seasoned combatant Sergeant Xavier (Marc Zinga)must take the protection of the younger Private Faustin (Stéphane Bak) into his own hands. Faustin is set to come of age, and as he begins to face the rigours of war, he struggles with exhaustion and overwhelming emotion. He is a peasant boy, raised as a farmer, who aims to return to his pregnant girlfriend, while Xavier’s greater struggle is existential. The sergeant is a war hero whose wife’s death in miscarriage leaves him with little to fight for, beyond integrity and martyrdom. The duo’s narrative is one of hope against tragedy, as Xavier’s motive shifts to selflessness and Faustin grows in strength and stoicism.

The film’s emphasis on youth in the context of an African war recalls Cary Fukanaga’s Beasts of No Nation, but unlike Fukanaga, Karekezi constructs his narrative with greater realism, placing the story in the jungle and emphasising the trauma and confusion that Faustin feels as a refugee of the Rwandan genocide. The Mercy of the Jungle identifies a specific moment in African history and illustrates the effect of socio-political turmoil on two individuals, one innocent and one experienced. Such accuracy and attention to local detail allows Karekezi to avoid the generic brutality of Fukanaga’s production.

Joachim Philippe’s elegant cinematography embodies the confusion of the jungle that first spits out the two lost soldiers before becoming their place of refuge. A flash-forward prologue introduces us to an exhausted Xavier tracking a young man into the open bush, before he cocks his rifle and the screen cuts to black. Karekezi plants the viewer in a merciless world in which guilt and innocence are conflated; each character is a victim of war, while violence is a means to survival. It is an impressive opening that introduces the film’s hand-held camerawork, contemplative pacing, and consistent suspense.

Karekezi’s filmmaking style showcases a versatility in shot selection that allows editor Antoine Donnet to cut between point-of-view moments and shots that create a sense of paranoia, peering through the jungle thicket and tracking the movements of Xavier and Faustin from afar. In a complex and enveloping military setting, these shots suggest a threat that surrounds the two lost fighters. But a thread of optimism runs throughout the carnage; glistening images of sunlight through tree canopies and flowing creeks call attention to the beauty of the natural space in which such a destructive process has taken place in recent decades. In particular, one scene sees the duo static among wild animals, a gorilla pacing around them as Faustin gazes in awe at their wild environment.

This verisimilitude makes The Mercy of the Jungle a compelling second work by Karekezi. Shots of base camps, jungle clearings and village interiors are imbued with a beautiful light, allowing the performances of Zinga and Bak to flourish as the narrative progresses. It is their characterisation as a duo with contradictory fates, concluding in poignant fashion, that gives the film its lasting impression.

This article was written as part of GoCritic! training programme.

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