A Matter of Rust: Jal revisits the relics of Sudan?s brutal civil war.

In War Child, Emmanuel Jal raps about AK-47s and trading an education for fighting skills. He admits to financially supporting several boys he doesn’t have personal relationships with. But Jal isn’t a drug-dealing baby daddy outta Compton—the childhood he lost was in Africa, and the gun was put in his hand in the early ’80s by the South Sudanese government, which was unrepentant about ripping kids from their homes and training them as soldiers in its protracted civil war. Thanks to a British aid worker, Jal was rescued after approximately five years of combat and found therapy in music, breaking out as a hip-hop artist in 2005 with a single titled “Gua” (“Peace”). C. Karim Chrobog’s debut feature documentary follows Jal, now based in London, as he travels to the United States to lecture and perform—mostly for young international audiences with more liberal guilt than rhythm—and later returns to Sudan for the first time in 18 years. War Child, like Jal’s music, is nearly critic-proof: Its noble intentions and horrific subject matter insist that you pay attention and then gush about how inspiring it is. Chrobog scored when he secured footage from National Geographic that shows Jal as a charismatic but battle-ready 7-year-old, telling his friend that he doesn’t want to give another interview because he “talked last night until the sun went down.” That child has grown up to become a one-man make-a-difference machine: Jal’s donations of both money and time may have a direct effect on kids from his homeland, but his story about lost innocence and a feeling of parental abandonment connects just as strongly when he speaks to students at Anacostia High School. Those high points are countered, though, with dull commentators and lots of repetition—photos of kids with guns, tales of kids with guns, lyrics about kids with guns. Ultimately, the film feels more like a drawn-out history lesson with a biography that’s too self-congratulatory to truly engage.