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Feb 26, 2009

Animation offers a new way of telling shocking, real-life stories that might otherwise be too jarring, explains Swedish documentary producer Hanna Heilborn.

By Anna-Katarina Gravgaard

Slaves, which was recently screened at the Berlin Film Festival, is a 15-minute animated documentary about child slavery in Sudan. The idea behind the film, according to Swedish documentarian Hanna Heilborn, was to use animation to tell a shocking story in a way that doesn’t overwhelm the audience. Not only does animation provide the anonymity needed in portraying victims like Abuk, but it also serves as a particularly effective tool for eliciting empathy in audiences.
The documentary is showing at film festivals throughout the world this year and is a part of a growing genre of animated documentaries that address significant political and social struggles. Ever since Waltz with Bashir, Ari Folman’s animated documentary about the 1982 war between Lebanon and Israel, won the Palme d’Or at the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, animated documentaries have been receiving significantly more attention.
Slaves’s directors, Hannah Heilborn and David Aronowitsch, are Swedish documentarians with a simple goal: to produce documentaries with international themes and global distribution. Their work includes long- and short-form films that cover a wide range of issues, from the difficulties that arise when an Israeli and a Palestinian marry to the story of a Khmer Rouge leader.
In animation, however, they seem to have found a particularly effective way of telling stories about the bad things that can happen to children in today’s world.
Their first collaborative animated documentary was Hidden, based on a interview with a Peruvian child living under the radar in Sweden. Released in 2002, the eight-minute film has won awards not only in Scandinavia, but also in Canada, Iran, Portugal, Italy and elsewhere.
The Swedish duo originally conceived of Slaves as a radio piece, but after traveling in Sudan to meet other former child slaves, they decided to use animation. They are now working on a third animated documentary.
Heilborn believes that animation is now firmly established as an effective storytelling tool. ”Frankly speaking, I think there has arisen a trend to do animated documentary,” she says. “ I think it is very useful to tell hard stories about children, for example. It’s dramatizing without the alienation of using actors.”

A Small Film with Big Impact
Heilborn’s first animated documentary, Hidden, has been touring since 2002.
Hidden [Gömd in Swedish] became huge,” says Hanna Heilborn about her first animated documentary. The film is about a young Peruvian boy, Giancarlo, who is living in hiding in Sweden with no chance of integration into Swedish society. In a radio interview, he describes what it is like to be persecuted, always moving, never allowing other kids to get too close out of fear of being caught.
The piece was meant to be part of a larger documentary but came to stand on its own. The short has been shown at over a hundred film festivals around the world and in 2002 picked up first prizes at the Évora International Short Film Festival in Portugal and Hot Docs in Toronto.
“We never thought it would become such a success,” says Heilborn.

Free the Slaves!
An estimated 40,000 Sudanese women and children have been enslaved in recent years. James Aguer claims to have freed 5,000 of them.
In the process, Aguer, who serves as deputy chairman of the Committee for the Eradication of Abduction of Women and Children (CEAWC) in Sudan, has been arrested 33 times.
He considers himself lucky to be alive.
Machiek and his mother are two of the many Sudanese who are thankful that he is still around. While living in the south of Sudan, the two, who are Christians of the Dinka tribe, were kidnapped when Machiek was only seven years old. Brought north by their Arab captors, the young boy was forced to herd cattle. After a failed attempt to escape, he was caught and severely punished. After four years, CEAWC located him and returned him to relatives in the south of the country.
Abductions like Machiek’s started in the mid-1980s during the Sudanese civil war. The government in Khartoum armed the Arab militias, known as the Murahaleen, to fight Christian rebels in the south. The Murahaleen had a free pass to attack villages, rape women, kill men and steal cattle and children. Many of the abducted women and children ended up in slavery.
CEAWC was established a decade ago to locate and free the enslaved. Originally financed by European governments and UNICEF, the Sudanese government took financial responsibility for CEAWC after a dispute with UNICEF. Today, the organization consists of roughly 200 people who negotiate releases, transport released abductees to the south and aid in resettlement.
They also have to cope with being harassed and imprisoned themselves by their supposed benefactors in government. “We get arrested because it is the government that supports the militia to go abduct the people,” says Aguer. “They don’t want us to know that there are people in captivity. That is why we get arrested—because we try to illuminate what is going on.”

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