REVIEW: Aquel no era yo [That Wasn’t Me] [2013]

Score: 9/10 | ★ ★ ★ ½

Rating: NR | Runtime: 26 minutes | Release Date: 2013 (Spain)
Studio: Instituto de la Cinematografía y de las Artes Audiovisuales
Director(s): Esteban Crespo
Writer(s): Esteban Crespo

“With your guns, people will respect you”

If someone told me they didn’t see Esteban Crespo‘s Aquel No Era Yo [That Wasn’t Me] as more than a contrived piece of melodrama tugging at heartstrings I’d believe them and understand completely. However, for me it was an affecting work brilliantly encapsulating the climate we now find our planet caught within. This is war devoid of rules, civil unrest placing automatic weapons into children’s hands, and the naively idealistic foreigners who believe they can enact change with a friendly smile. Crespo doesn’t say what African nation we find Paula (Alejandra Lorente) and Juanjo (Gustavo Salmerón) visiting as doctors to help heal the injured rebels and we don’t need to know. This could just as easily have been set in the Middle East—the story would be the same.

Deserving its Oscar nomination and in my opinion the award itself, the story put onscreen hits all the beats you’d expect it to but not quite in the way your preconceptions would assume. What starts as optimistic Spaniards coming into contact with armed boys guarding a barrier turns to a prison situation where the native general (Babou Cham) could care less about permission, intent, or morality. We believe Juanjo has touched young Kaney (Mariano Nguema) with talk of Ronaldo and fútbol, appealing to his adolescent wonder at celebrity, sport, and fame until the boy’s indoctrination comes fully into focus. People will die, a rape will occur, and all-out war will commence with a military takeover in a hail of bullets and fire. And we will see the face of vengeance through tears.

I know, injecting scenes where an adult African teen is seen and heard speaking Spanish in front of a huge crowd of enraptured listeners is a clichéd device to start our minds reeling in the sense that we must know who survives and who doesn’t. But just because it is cliché doesn’t stop it from being a potent way of getting the point across about just how deep these young “soldiers” have fallen. When you have no home, family, or freedom to live you will become what you must to survive. If being a child of the revolution is your only choice opposite a bullet in the head, you take that gun and kill whomever your general demands.

Would it be easy for us as First World bystanders coming in like we know exactly what’s happening to follow suit when those we love are murdered in cold blood? Yes. But that would make us just as culpable, just as monstrously remorseless. If we’re really to think we know better—that our way of life is superior—then we must also be better. That Wasn’t Me therefore becomes a bittersweet tale of redemption and compassion in the face of blind rage and fear. It is the story of a boy doing the only things he knows how to do until given the chance to be more. We all have the potential for evil and in turn the ability to heal.

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