Adhel Arop’s Documentary is an Ode Her Mother’s Past as a Child Soldier

'Who Am I', written and directed by 21-year-old Kenyan-born Adhel Arop, shares the poignant story of her upbringing, the complex relationship with her mother and the impact of finding out she was a former Sudanese child soldier.

Originally from Nairobi, Africa, filmmaker, director and model Adhel Arop relocated to Burnaby, British Columbia when she was just a toddler. She and her family saw through the war and refugee camps in Ethiopia, Uganda and Kenya before they settled into a new life in Canada, which felt like a world away from their complicated past. As a minority at school, Adhel questioned her sense of belonging for a long time, but soon found her path in art, using this to express herself in various capacities. She loved taking photographs, being the subject of them as a model, writing poetry and directing film.

Her mother, Amel Madut was the head of the family and a source of great compassion, she never turned anyone away from their home and worked two jobs to support Adhel and her siblings. Still, she was always quiet and observant, never revealing much about herself, which made Adhel curious as to who her mother really was.

Who Am I is the documentary that focuses on the relationship of a mother and daughter, generational trauma and the search for one’s “self” in different contexts.

When did you first learn that your mother was a Sudanese child soldier?

A relative of mine told me and then I investigated further. I called up my Mom one day and I asked her where she was in 1984. She said Bilpam, Ethiopia. I looked this up and ended up watching training camp footage of Sudanese child soldiers during this period of time.

As I watched, my heart dropped. I was in total shock and disbelief from seeing the images on-screen, I also made the mistake of watching this footage in a coffee shop, so I had tears dripping profusely down my face the whole time. I just couldn’t believe this had happened to her.

How did your relationship with her change when you found out about this?

Mom telling me her stories, revealing parts of herself to me that I hadn’t previously known about made me feel so much more connected to her and my roots.

What type of impact do you think the traumatic experience has had on her?

I think it has made it hard for her to get close to people. I can only imagine how heartbreaking it would be to see friends and family die before your eyes, so it would explain why she is more guarded and protective.

When did it dawn on you to share this journey through a documentary?

I’ve always felt very passionate about storytelling. I was on one of those ‘creative sprees’ in the summer of 2018 and just came upon thinking of sharing this particular story. It was because I had a flashback to a memory of when I was in grade three, my Mother had sat me down, saying to me: ”One day, you will tell my story”. From then on, it’s been something of a life goal of mine to share her experience; I always felt compelled to someday find out more and fulfill her wish.

Was it difficult to convince your family to share their life on-screen?

Not so much, since everyone was super supportive and willing to be open with their experiences. They have been along for the ride during the entire process of creating this film, to aid me in showcasing their stories as authentically as possible.

Amel Madut

The money from the tickets to your premiere were donated to the Obakki Foundation (a charity that monitors wells in Africa). How did you find out about them?

I was around seventeen years old at the time and my [modelling] agent told me about a fundraiser with Obakki, ‘Walk for Water’, which was a fashion show. There was a line-up of Sudanese models and influencers at the show and I even met a few who spoke Dinka! That was when I was first introduced to the charity.

I feel thankful to have crossed paths with the Obakki Foundation and now finally have the platform to share the important work they do in my country.

Does Amel talk more freely about her past since ‘Who Am I’ was shared?

She’s opening up with me more than before, as well as involving me a lot more with her friends and they’ve started sharing their experiences with me too.

Still from ‘Who Am I’

In the documentary, you touch on settling as refugees in Canada. What was the support system like, when you first arrived?

When we first arrived, we stayed at a welcome house for a few months while they integrated us into Canada, so it was a helpful start in that respect.

Do you feel that you are as equally Sudanese as you are Canadian? 

I can’t say that I feel completely equal as a Canadian as I do Sudanese, since it’s a very deep connection to be tied to such rich, cultural roots. From my viewpoint, with dual identity it’s almost as if you fit in nowhere but everywhere…

Dinka is the language you share as a family. What does it mean to you to have this connection to your roots?

As a polyglot, language is so important and it’s pretty amazing to have the ability to express yourself in many different ways. When I speak Dinka, I feel closer to my family and culture, because some things just can’t be translated and Dinka is the only way we can express what we truly mean.

You went by two names throughout your life, Lois and Adhel, up until a few years ago. What made you want to keep it as Adhel exclusively?

I’ve always struggled with my identity. I never really knew where I belonged and found myself writing ‘Who Am I?’ often in my journals. I’ve always had two identities. My legal name is Lois Arop, but my true given name is Adhel Arop. It’s become less of a question and more of statement as I’ve matured, so that’s why I’ve stuck with Adhel.

Are there any plans to visit yours and your mother’s birthplace at some point?

Well, I’m hoping to go back with my Mom – just the two of us, or as a work trip if we get funded for a full-length documentary of Who Am I.

As a multi-faceted artist, how do you manage to balance all your creative endeavours? 

At first, I thought about quitting my modeling career and pursuing my other creative ventures, but my agency convinced me not to. It’s not easy managing various projects, but it’s doable! Dulcedo (my agency) have been so supportive and have always encouraged me to remain focused on my other work too. I feel so grateful to have a team who have my back like they do.

Anything on the horizon that you’d like to share with us?

I’m working on the next chapter of Who Am I and I look forward to sharing more information soon!

Thanks so much, Adhel, we wish you and your family all the best.

Who Am I is now available to watch on Youtube .