Invisible children

Each night, thousands of children walk, sometimes for hours, from rural villages into the cities of northern Uganda to sleep. Some sleep in public areas like bus stations or hospitals, some prefer more secluded hideouts like verandas or basements. They will rise in the morning and make the long walk back.

They do this out of fear of being abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army, a rebel group that has stolen more than 20,000 children from their homes and schools. Violently abused and raped, the children are forced to become child soldiers and fight the people in the villages they come from. The U.S. State Department estimates that up to 12,000 people have been killed by rebel violence in Uganda since the conflict began 18 years ago.

The situation seems pretty bleak. What, if anything, could a movie do about any of this? According to the makers and promoters of “Invisible Children,” a lot.

Since its creation in 2003 by three University of Southern California students, “Invisible Children,” has transformed into Invisible Children, Inc., a nonprofit organization with a simple goal: to wake up Americans, particularly young Americans, to the suffering of the children of Uganda, which has been widely ignored by much of the world. The film was screened for free Sunday at Portland State’s Fifth Avenue Cinema.

All three filmmakers, Jason Russell, Bobby Bailey and Laren Poole, were under the age of 25 when they made the film. Also, not a single member of Invisible Children, Inc.’s U.S. management staff is over the age of 28.

In keeping with the youth of the filmmakers and the young audience they hope to reach, the film has a fast-paced, MTV-generation feel, with a slick and often sappy pop-rock soundtrack. While this may be distracting to an older viewer, the underlying story is so compelling as to move almost anyone.

One element that makes “Invisible Children” so accessible is the naivete of the filmmakers themselves. The film begins with the trio doing reality-show style interviews into the camera, answering questions about what they expect from their trip, with comical shots catching them checking their hair in the mirror, pondering whether the camera is working and so on. The three So-Cal college dudes come off as, well, pretty typical So-Cal college dudes. But through the course of the film, your eyes open with theirs, as they are profoundly struck by the suffering of the Ugandan children.

The film doesn’t attempt to answer too many questions about Uganda’s plight, steering away from diving too deeply into politics, economics or statistics. What it does capture, in both its beauty and horror, is the humanity of the children.

The film is filled with bold-colored images of children at play together, children singing together and children – hundreds of them – crammed into a tiny room, sleeping together.

Jacob, a 16-year-old former LRA abductee, provides perhaps the film’s most gripping and memorable moment. The filmmakers befriend Jacob on their first night in Uganda. The young man explains to the filmmakers that children who cried in the LRA were often killed or told they would be killed. Later in the film, when asked what he would say to his brother, who was killed in the LRA, if he could see him again, Jacob bursts into tears. A haunting image that becomes a symbol for the suffering of all of the children affected by years of conflict.

Seven “Invisible Children” RV’s packed full of volunteers have been touring the country, showing the film at colleges, high schools, theaters and churches. While the film is great to watch, for the “Invisible Children” team it is really just a starting point. What they really want is for people to become inspired to work to better the lives of children in Uganda. The filmmakers donate proceeds from the sale of merchandise to Ugandan education projects, and they have a flashy web site with volunteer information,

The organization is particularly focused on promoting the “Global Night Commute,” on April 29, an event where thousands of people across the United States, including in Portland, will sleep outside in public areas to draw awareness to the invisible children of Uganda. For more information visit