IFFR 2023 review: Le spectre de Boko Haram (Cyrielle Raingou)

Le spectre de Boko Haram registers all of this in what appear to be simple images, but which carefully and poignantly elucidate life amidst violence from the perspective of children.”

What becomes of the innocence of a child when it grows up amidst the constant threat of violence? This is the question raised by Cyrielle Raingou’s feature debut, the observant documentary Le spectre de Boko Haram, which the five-member jury of IFFR’s main competition, including Filipino master Lav Diaz and renowned producer Christine Vachon, awarded the top prize of the festival. A film in which young children are seemingly unperturbed by the violence that constantly looms in the background of their lives, but where upon closer examination the psychological effects of their upbringing in what is effectively a war zone are devastating. Raingou, a native of the region she is portraying, has a delicate touch that lets the children open up about their experiences, which makes Le spectre de Boko Haram a gentle film with a grim undertone beneath its bright surface.

For almost a decade now the terrorist organization Boko Haram has conducted raids on the villages of Northern Cameroon from their bases in Nigeria. The government of Cameroon, which initially quelled the attacks and claimed victory, has in recent years seen the number of attacks rise again, as they were forced to withdraw troops from the north to other unstable regions in the country. In the midst of all this, the children of Northern Cameroon try to live their daily lives as carefree as possible, but with violence all around them and their own first-hand experiences with it, their world is infused with the normalcy of war that has become a day-to-day part of their lives. Le spectre de Boko Haram follows three children predominantly as they try to come to grips with their experiences. Falta, a studious and hard-working girl of 11, has lost her dad to a suicide bomber, and is trying to overcome her struggle to make peace with that idea by studying hard in school. The brothers Mohamed (11) and Ibrahim (8) are rebellious kids who go the opposite way: they skip school whenever they feel like it and wander around the fields that surround the village. They have been abducted in the past by the terrorists, and their conversations suggest they have been used as child soldiers.

Despite some of the conversations, in particular between the two brothers, feeling forced and expository, Raingou’s portrayal of the children is cleverly done. She often films them from afar, allowing for the signifiers of the tense situation to creep into the image in the form of the Cameroon army. The presence of Boko Haram is only hinted at by occasional gunshots in the distance. The soldiers rarely interact with the kids, but when we see the children’s drawings it shows that their presence does not go unnoticed. Next to ducks and kids playing football we see soldiers shooting at people. Children sing songs about shooting the enemy or craft attack helicopters out of clay. All the while their innocent faces show no signs of unhappiness.

It is in their behaviour that the horrors of their past shine through. Falta is withdrawn and a bit of a loner. Her fight is not only against the memory of her father’s death, but also the traditions of the village. Raingou uses the children to illustrate the contrasts in a war zone like this. The playfulness of children next to the grim reminders of terrorism. Modern medicine vying with traditional potions. The despair of the past versus the hope for a better future. Le spectre de Boko Haram registers all of this in what appear to be simple images, but which carefully and poignantly elucidate life amidst violence from the perspective of children. It is a promising debut from Raingou, whose Tiger Award win (and the cash prize that comes with) will certainly help her with a future project; we as an audience can eagerly look forward to it.