When actor Stéphane Bak first got the script for The Mercy of the Jungle (La Miséricorde de la Jungle), he knew there was one person he had to consult: his father.
“My dad did school me about this,” he says.
Although, Bak was born and raised in France, his parents had emigrated from the then Zaire in the 1980s.
Zaire is not exactly in the same area, but close enough to be able to pass on firsthand knowledge of the simmering ethnic tensions that spurred the action.
The story takes place in 1998, just after the outbreak of the Second Congo War which came ridding on the heels of the First Congo War.
Two Rwandan soldiers find themselves separated from their company and have to make a harrowing trek through the jungle to link back up with their regiment.
Bak plays Private Faustin, the young recruit hunting Hutu rebels to avenge his murdered family, a foil to Marc Zinga’s seasoned Sergeant Xavier.
As a Congolese militia swarms the area, and it becomes increasingly difficult to tell enemies from friends, the two are forced off the road and into the thick vegetation.
Their journey is physically difficult, but the jungle also nurtures them, providing food, water, and shelter.
“The title is very explicit in a way,” says Bak.
It is the human beings they encounter, from rival soldiers and militiamen to the hostile security forces guarding illegal gold mining operations, who bring sudden danger and violence.
The challenges are conveyed as much through the actors’ physicality as through the minimal dialogue.
As for the strain on his face, Bak says it was all real.
“To be honest, it was very difficult,”
“I had to learn my accent in two weeks.”
He says of the shoot, which took him 25 days.
Prior to commencing, there was training with the Ugandan army for realism.
Due to the ongoing conflicts in the DRC, the movie itself was shot in Uganda.
Meanwhile, the France/Belgium co-produced movie is a result of a shoestring budget,
However it doesn’t bear the telltale hallmarks of cheap indie film making.
The cinematography is engrossing, and the jungle itself provides an atmospheric backdrop that can be welcoming or menacing.
Director Joël Karekezi is a native of Rwanda, and lost family members to genocide.
His first film, Imbabazi: Le Pardon, was released in 2014.
The screenplay for The Mercy of the Jungle was an official selection at Cannes in 2013, and at the Locarno Festival in Switzerland in 2014.
However, in his next project, Bak will be playing a Congolese migrant searching for a long lost brother in France.
in a film that sees him working with German filmmaker Schipper again.
The Mercy of the Jungle had its North American premiere at TIFF,
and opens publicly in France in October 2018,
along with screening at the Festival International du Film Francophone de Namur in Belgium.