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Theatre of Violence review – questions of culpability as Lord’s Resistance Army killer comes to trial

<span>A crowd watches the international criminal court case against Dominic Ongwen on television in a Ugandan village.</span><span>Photograph: Kacper Czubak</span>
A crowd watches the international criminal court case against Dominic Ongwen on television in a Ugandan village.Photograph: Kacper Czubak

Dominic Ongwen was nine when he was abducted from his village in northern Uganda and conscripted as a child soldier by the notorious Lord’s Resistance Army rebel group led by Joseph Kony. As a boy, Ongwen was a victim, brutalised and brainwashed; in adulthood, he progressed up the ranks, becoming a feared LRA commander. This film follows his trial at the international criminal court, where he was convicted of 61 individual charges of murder, rape, sexual slavery, abduction and torture. Ongwen is the first former child soldier to be convicted by the court and one question raised by this documentary is how far is he morally responsible for his crimes?

It’s a tough watch, with some extremely harrowing moments. The documentary was shot over six years by film-makers Lukasz Konopa and Emil Langballe, who skilfully broaden out their story with helpful context to explain the conflict in Uganda, stretching back to colonial powers carving up the continent.

The courtroom drama unfolds inside a grey, sterile building in The Hague, where a prosecutor describes the question of Ongwen’s culpability as a “non-legal issue”. Childhood trauma, he says later, in his closing submission, doesn’t given anyone a “free pass” to commit atrocities. The defence is led by the elegantly charismatic lawyer Krispus Ayena Odongo, arguing that his client acted under duress.

The film-makers follow Ayena into the lush, beautiful landscape of northern Uganda as he gathers testimonies. A boyhood friend who was abducted with Ongwen agrees to give evidence. He recounts how soon after being captured they were forced to watch a man being hacked to death with an axe for trying to escape. Back in court, a recording is played of one of Ongwen’s victims, remembering how her baby was killed in an attack he ordered on a camp for displaced people. For me, any debate about Ongwen and culpability stopped with her.

Elsewhere, people in Uganda ask why it’s only the Lord’s Resistance Army in court: what about atrocities committed by the army? Yoweri Museveni has been in power since taking the presidency in 1986, and we watch his sixth successive election victory on TV screens, crushing opposition from popular singer turned democracy candidate Bobi Wine – himself the subject of an excellent film (Bobi Wine: The People’s President). This is a difficult watch with no easy answers.

• Theatre of Violence is in UK cinemas from 1 March.