Director: Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye, Kurt Egyiawan
After great success with its original television content with shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black, streaming giant Netflix has made the move into film production with its first original feature, Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. In adapting Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed novel about the life of a child soldier, Netflix has made a powerful statement with its first film, announcing itself as a company not afraid to tackle complex and confronting subject matter.
In an unspecified African nation, we meet a cheeky and imaginative young boy named Agu (Abraham Attah). While Agu lives a carefree existence, his country is caught up in a vicious, multi-factioned civil war. There is a constant stream of refugees passing through their rural village. Caught between the rebels and the army, the decision is soon made to evacuate the village. While the women and babies are shipped off to the capital for safety, the men stay to protect their village against looters.
It is the government’s army that arrives first. The locals are accused of being rebel spies and summarily executed, with Agu escaping into the bush in the panic having watched his father and brother gunned down. After a few days of fending for himself Agu is captured by the Native Defence Forces, a rag-tag guerrilla militia under the leadership of a charismatic warlord known only as the Commandant (Idris Elba). The soldier who presents Agu to the Commandant insists that he is not a threat, that he is just a boy, but the Commandant rejects that thinking. “Just a boy? Does he have two eyes to see? Hands to strangle? Fingers to pull a trigger?” And so Agu is drafted into his battalion, given a weapon and made to fight.
The ideological grounds for this civil war are at best shadily sketched, but this lack of detail is appropriate. This is Agu’s story and ideology is not important to him. He and the other child soldiers are not fighting for a cause, they are fighting because they have to. The Commandant tells them that the people they are fighting are those who killed their families and destroyed their village, but you get the impression that the kids don’t really believe him any more than we do. Their motivations are fear and survival. They are primal not political.
Fukunaga quickly and effectively establishes the relative normality of Agu’s world at the beginning of the film. He has loving parents. He goes to school and church. He jokes and plays with his older brother. While Agu’s world may be different to ours, as a person he is not that different at all. Agu has not been raised in a harsh, dog-eat-dog world that could be seen to have prepared him for what is to come any more than you or I at age ten. It is very difficult to watch as these children are coerced into acts of violence, none more so than a scene in which Agu and another boy are initiated into the army by being made to kill a prisoner – who is an engineer rather than an opposing soldier – with a machete. But the fact is that young people are adaptable. At some point this life starts to feel normal to Agu. He starts to smile and laugh again, even in the midst of this horror. Yet he still knows what he has lost. “If this war is ever ending I cannot go back to doing child things.”
The Commandant is an intriguing and frightening character. A savvy manipulator, he initially presents himself as a caring father figure and mentor to his young followers, drilling into them that he saved their lives, and demanding their allegiance. As the film progresses he takes on an almost mythical quality. We never see the Commandant fight. We never see him fire a weapon. Instead he strides confidently through the battlefield watching his battalion fight around him. His men, many of them under the influence of hallucinogens, shout chants and sing war songs about their Commandant. But this illusion is then shattered when the battalion arrives in the capital to meet with the Supreme Commander and the Commandant goes from being a demigod among his followers to a small cog in a big machine. It is an impressive and layered performance from Idris Elba. As the only recognisable name in the cast, and one of the film’s producers, Elba’s involvement was obviously key to getting this challenging film made.
While Beasts of No Nation has been produced by a television streaming company, Fukunaga – best known for directing Jane Eyre and much of the first season of True Detective – has made a film for the big screen. Acting also as cinematographer, Fukunaga is quite a gifted visual stylist. Beasts of No Nation has a good sense of scale, and the skirmishes have been impressively shot. There is also a matter-of-factness in the way Fukunaga treats his subject matter, not shying away from showing us the true horror and brutality of the situation.
Beasts of No Nation is a brutal and harrowing exploration of the child soldier tragedy occurring in Africa. It is quite impressive that a film of this scale and honesty on this topic could even get made, let alone by a new company trying to establish itself in the industry. But despite its laudable qualities, it will be an uphill battle to attract audiences with its subject matter.
Review by Duncan McLean
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