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Television Review

THE IMAGE on screen is a familiar one - a bare brown foot stomping rhythmically in the African dust. If you watch television regularly, you'll have seen this countless times because it has virtually become a registered trademark for the otherness of Africa - a way of taking its primal pulse. It occurred quite a few times in "The Mission", Clive Gordon's film for the True Stories (C4) strand about the murderous activities of the Lord's Resistance Army, and it occurred at considerable length, too - taking the view that the vision of the documentary film-maker should not be confined by the blinkers of conventional scheduling slots. True Stories lasted an hour and a half, and, like several other films in the current season, it forced you to think quite hard about the virtues and vices of length. This is a kind of blasphemy on television, where an induced forgetfulness about the clock is usually the desired goal.

It's easy to understand why an editor would have declined to intervene in the cutting room - Gordon's previous documentaries on Chechnya and Bosnia were prize-winning affairs, utterly distinctive in their style and their disdain for conventional narrative structures. How do you prune a bramble bush? What's more, it isn't easy to separate the frustration from the frisson in such works - the delivery of emotional effect often depending on a long period in which you sit, mildly bemused, waiting for something meaningful to happen. As a believer in the aesthetic virtues of the razor blade, I think "The Mission" would have been a stronger film if it had been half-an-hour shorter - but a filament of doubt runs through that conclusion. By the end, it felt as if you had travelled to another place altogether, a sense of dislocation which can often be soothed away by more conventional films. If, as the title suggested, "The Mission" had been a simple tale of rescue - with Sister Rachele trying to recover 30 abducted convent girls from the grasp of Joseph Kony's brutal crusade - then it would have been possible to watch in a far more complacent way. As it was, the fact that you never quite knew where you were in the film - or who exactly you were looking at - added an edge of anxiety to the subject.

And the subject was extraordinary - for more than 10 years a ragged army of kidnapped children has been terrorising northern Uganda under the control of Joseph Kony, a messianic lunatic who is invariably described as a "former altar boy" in newspaper reports, presumably because journalists enjoy the thrill of innocence turned septic. Kony, who is based in Sudan, leads raids across the border, killing villagers, destroying their houses and stealing children, who he then brutalises into perpetrating fresh brutalities. Gordon began with film of captured rebels being taken to a "trauma therapy centre", which sounded as if it might be a sinister euphemism, but turned out to be a relatively benign holding camp, staffed by social workers coping with children who had been forced to kill other children. Several were shown, recalling their own atrocities with quiet, desperate resignation.

There was a storyline to grasp here - the popular television tale of recuperation - but Gordon soon let that line drop to pick up another. Again, it utilised a conventional television technique for filming a difficult subject - using a local journalist as a way into the story. In this case it was, Jerry, a reporter from Uganda's Monitor newspaper who was dispatched by his cheerfully pessimistic editor to secure an interview with Kony himself. "Jerry will need to eat lion's liver this time," said one of his colleagues, shortly before he was advised by his editor to make sure his will was up to date. And yet again, just as you were finding your feet with this framework, Gordon moved on, introducing another perspective in the shape of Sister Rachele, a courageous nun who had already rescued 109 of her pupils from the rebels and was now seeking the remaining 30. The film concluded with her e-mailing an appeal to Kony, but there was no neat ending to any of these beginnings - no rescue, no scoop, no victory.

In one sense, then, the programme was a frustrating mess - one which didn't even offer a narration to guide you through its unfamiliar landscape. But if a film should represent its subject matter in the style of its making, a frustrating mess was exactly what it should have been.