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Dominic Akena was nine when forced to join the Lord’s Resistance Army. Photo credit: Jalani Morgan.
We’re sitting across from each other and we’re 30 minutes into a drifting conversation and Dominic Akena, without prompt, is suddenly showing me the inside of his mouth.
“You see that?” he asks, hooking his pinky finger into his cheek and peeling back his lip, exposing a large, irregular space on the bottom-left side of his mouth, where two teeth — a molar and premolar — should be, but for reasons he begins to describe, are not.
They are missing not because of a tooth fairy or a fight, but because, when he was nine years old and living in Uganda, after he was abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and forced into their army of child soldiers, one of the rebels struck him with the bum stock of an AK-47, fracturing his two teeth and leaving him with an infection that reclaimed the real estate.
“It hurt,” he says, then, “I spat blood,” and I can’t help but feel my own jaw, picturing the spongy mandible of an unwitting child unable to brace for impact.
Though cinematic in nature, this event does not make it into Akena’s thesis film for Ryerson’s documentary media program where he is now a student. Safari, an autobiographical documentary, follows the lives of two former child soldiers, Akena and Walter Ojok Ocii, and their journeys from Uganda to Toronto.
“In a way,” Akena tells me, “the film is me trying to chip away at the burden of my memories, bit by bit.” When he speaks, he has a similar manner of drilling at memories, shuttling between present and past as if to better understand the jagged path. “It’s the one part of my life that I can’t get past. No matter what happens, from now on, it will always start from that point.”
The 20-minute film, which showed recently at DocNow, external link, is something of a shifting mosaic, one that zooms painfully into Akena’s war-torn past and then out into his subsequent journey. It’s a quilt of emotions — interviews with his host family, in Toronto, are a warm and nostalgic contrast to reflections on images of his village burning, of the sounds of gunfire under the night sky.
“This was my time to tell my story,” he says, “to face something that, while everyone else might have already seen it, I haven’t been able to process yet, myself.”
When he says that “everyone” may have “already seen” his story, Akena is referring to another unusual childhood moment: War/Dance, the 2007 Academy Award-nominated documentary that tracked the lives of three Ugandan refugee children, including Akena, whose lives were upended by the guerrilla war.
It was this film, Akena explains, that showed him the power and the storytelling potential of filmmaking. “It was weird and fascinating for me to see this white man with a camera in the middle of these atrocities,” he says.
Akena was nine when he was kidnapped from his village by rebels, shadowy figures he imagined, based on the anxious mumblings of adults in the community, were actual biological monsters. His nightmares — in which the rebels had overgrown incisors and animalistic heads — were debunked when they actually arrived, since “some of them were kids, just like me, only they had guns.”
Some of this is recounted both in Safari and in War/Dance, and the latter film is what first landed Akena in Canada. Following the release of War/Dance, in 2008, a 14-year-old Akena was invited by AMREF, external link to a gala event it was hosting in Toronto. (He partially credits the movie with his early passion for filmmaking; it had the power to move people, and to move Akena, physically, from one continent to another). In War/Dance, he had played the xylophone; he played it in front of the eager Canadian crowd.
This was where a teacher from Appleby College, Don Stewart, first saw Akena and helped get him a full scholarship to the liberal arts prep school in Oakville, where his Canadian journey began.
After graduating from Appleby College, Akena got a full scholarship to an undergraduate program at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He kept in contact with the filmmakers of War/Dance, who became his legal guardians and lived in Washington D.C. — where Akena would, after graduating, end up working as a junior film editor at National Geographic.
But a year into working there, “President Donald Trump happened,” and the working visa status of many immigrants in the United States was tossed up into a frenzy. Akena was abruptly uprooted and planned to move back to Uganda.
He didn’t. Somehow — and he isn’t too sure how, only that, passing through Toronto, he organized meetings and figured things out — Akena found himself at Ryerson University, furthering his studies in film as a master’s student in the documentary media program.
Safari traces some of this history, focusing largely on Akena’s experience moving to Toronto as a young teenager, a totally alien place where nobody spoke his language, and getting used to a new world he didn’t yet understand. “It didn’t feel real to me,” he says, “this futuristic city.” Even in the summers, he was cold. The food was bad — he hated pizza. The snow, he grew to love, just as he grew to love many other things about the city.
We’re nearing the hour mark in our conversation and Akena doesn’t want to talk about his past anymore. He doesn’t feel like thinking about broken teeth or Joseph Kony. For his thesis film, he says, “I almost didn’t want to include my background story.”
His uncertain immigration status still haunts him. Right now, he’s mentally preparing to apply for permanent status.
Akena has been running his whole life. He was running when he was nine, dragging himself through the dense Ugandan forests amid the sound of bullets tearing through the skulls of other children. He was running when he escaped and found himself at some bursting displacement camp, and was running, still, from the thought of it all.
“Having gone through all of this, I really need this to work,” he says. “I’ve been in North America since I was 14. I’m 25 now. All I’ve been doing this whole time is searching for a work permit, or status, or something that would let me relax and do my thing.”
Akena been running for a very long time. He’s tired.
Now, he just wants to rest.
Original source: https://www.ryerson.ca/news-events/news/2019/07/finding-the-power-in-your-story/