Have you ever had a feeling, while watching a movie, that you’ve seen this all before?
No. I am not talking of those tired old formula films so deservedly and repeatedly mocked on websites all over the world, which recycle the same tired plot, word for word, with just the faces on the poster to tell them apart.
What if you watch a film that you know for sure you have never watched before, because it only came out something like a week ago?
What if, more than that, you know this film, know these actors, know this tale, because it’s something you’ve dreamed of, written about, and felt on a level deep within yourself, in the place from which the stories come?
I have, as I may have mentioned in these pages once or twice, a fascination with child soldiers. There are hundreds of thousands of these unfortunates in the world, from ISIStan to South Sudan, from the Central African Republic to Somalia. And why do they even exist? What use are child soldiers, anyway?
Plenty, as it happens.
As I wrote a few years ago when the internet erupted suddenly with the manufactured Joseph Kony sensation,
Children...make superb soldiers. They obey orders utterly and without question, they have no intrinsic moral compass, and they lack a sense of self-preservation. They can be utterly and fearlessly brutal without even knowing the implications of what they’re doing. They are smaller than adult soldiers, require less food and facilities, and can be kept going with drugs like amphetamines as long as required. And in an overpopulated and impoverished part of the world, when they die, they can be replaced easily and cheaply. Armies all over sub-Saharan Africa have used child soldiers to fight their battles.
This is especially true in African bush wars, where the “armies” are little better than warlord militia and “generals” are basically gang leaders with machine guns and rocket launchers. They don’t need educated, highly trained troops capable of operating complex equipment. They need cannon fodder who are psychopathic enough to kill when and whom they’re told.
This is one such story.
I first heard of Beasts Of No Nation while looking for a review of another film altogether. The name of Idris Elba caught my eye immediately. Elba is someone I look up to as probably the single best character actor in the world today, one of the few, in fact, who play the character they’re playing, and not themselves playing the character they’re playing. I first saw him in the Rwandan War drama Sometimes In April and have revered his acting since then.
I then saw that it was a movie about child actors, and, that’s it, I was hooked.
[Incidentally, there’s a lot of guff online about this movie’s distribution. Something about Netflix etc. There’s no Netflix in this country and I couldn’t give a severed head about distribution and the like, so I’ll ignore that bit altogether. I downloaded it from Torrents, and that’s how I watched it. To hell with distribution discussions. Onward!]
Now, as soon as I began watching this movie, something struck me with the force of a machete. I knew this story. I knew what was coming. I’d gone through this all before.
A few years ago, I wrote a series of four tales on a civil war set in a fictional African country. Called The Bisaria Quartet, the second story in the series, Fun And Games, featured a boy in a village attacked by a rebel militia, whose family is slaughtered or otherwise scattered. Captured by the militia’s soldiers, he and others are adopted by a general who makes himself into a substitute father figure, trains them to use weapons, fills them with drugs...and then sends them out to kill.
You can read it here, if you’re interested. In fact, I suggest you do before reading this review further. And then I suggest you read the other three parts as well.
Really, it won’t be a waste of your time.
This is the story of Beasts Of No Nation:
Agu is a boy in a village in an unnamed West African country. He’s mischievous, fun-loving, highly imaginative, and spends his time playing with his friends since school is barely functional. School is barely functional because there’s a war on, and – after a military coup against the government – civil war is sweeping the country. The women and children are evacuated while the men stay back to “defend their town”; the government’s soldiers overwhelm them without trouble, and massacre them all on the grounds that they’re “rebels”. Only Agu, the lone survivor, escapes into the forest...and is found and captured by the real rebels, led by the charismatic, dangerous Commandant, who puts himself up as a father figure over them.
If you’ve read my story, you’ll already have noted the parallels.
No, I’m not claiming, in any sense at all, that the film ripped off my stories in any way or is plagiarism. It goes far beyond that. Because, you see, though I never described my protagonists in detail, in my mind they looked exactly like the “rebels” in this screenshot from the movie here:
And, yes, that’s Elba as the Commandant in the middle, and, yes, that’s exactly how I envisioned my General, though I did not describe him.
So Agu is taken under the wing of the rebel group – only one, as it turns out, of a smorgasbord of “rebel” outfits swarming the country, all identified by meaningless acronyms. He’s “initiated” – by being made to run the gauntlet of a double line of stick wielding militiamen – and trained to become an automaton who he does exactly as he’s told. In a particularly gruesome scene, after an ambush, the Commandant gets him to hack a pleading prisoner to death, and rewards him with his own personal AK 47 rifle. He then uses this rifle to considerable effect, both to massacre civilians in exactly the same fashion as his own village was massacred by the soldiers...and to, um, save a woman from rape. I am not going to tell you how the latter happens.
Agu is played, astonishingly well, by a Ghanaian child...I hesitate to call him a “child actor”...called Abraham Attah. According to the reviews I’ve read, he was a street vendor whom the director more or less accidentally encountered. In fact, apart from Elba, the entire cast consists of unknowns, which is an excellent thing. And, very unusually for a Hollywood film, there is not a single white character, either as a saviour or as an eyewitness, which is an even better thing. The only white face I can even remember is a woman glimpsed for a second through the window of a vehicle in a UN convoy which passes the Commandant’s outfit as it goes to massacre a village...and does nothing to prevent the massacre. Nothing at all.
The thing about Agu that really strikes one is that he manages to convey a thousand emotions without even moving his face much, let alone open his mouth. The latter is fortunate, because the extremely thick accents of the cast sometimes make for difficult comprehension. Most of the little he speaks towards the latter part of the film is in voice over monologues, which seem in fact to have absolutely nothing to do with what is happening on the screen, and are all the more powerful for that.
“Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody's ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”
Agu and his friend Strika, who never speaks – a substitute brother, replacement for the one he lost, just as the Commandant replaces his dead father – make their way through a developing tragedy that is as inevitable as it is compelling. It’s a train wreck in slow motion, true, but a train wreck in which you care about everyone on board, from the locomotive driver to the brakeman in the guard van, from the dining car attendant to the last passenger in an upper berth. You know something terrible is coming – you just don’t know when or in what form the final tragedy will strike.
As a counterpoint to Agu is Idris Elba as the Commandant; manipulative, selfish, more than a little bit of a megalomaniac, and yet deeply insecure inside, looking for some kind of role to play that is commensurate with his own opinion of himself. Without giving out spoilers it’s impossible to tell too much about him. I’ll only mention that when he discovers that he, and his bunch of killers (whom he calls his “family”) are merely disposable tools for the politicians behind the scenes, it doesn’t go too well. And as his power diminishes, the huge man (Elba is very large) seems to diminish too, and yet, become more human by the moment. It’s a quite amazing performance by Elba, one which would have overshadowed the film if not for Attah’s own Agu.
Once again, if I might introduce a shameless plug, I refer to my General in Part Four...
The cinematography is excellent, at times almost surreal; the beauty of the rain forest on the one hand, the little hill towns with their red earth streets and market stalls – as familiar to us Asians as they are to West Africans – offset by the violence, the massacres, and the endless, meaningless conflict in which nobody knows or cares whom they kill, or even what on earth they’re fighting for; where a Japanese businessman with a briefcase is given priority over exhausted troops who are kept waiting all night for an audience; where “food” might mean a giant rat or a beetle grub eaten alive, or gelatinous half-cooked rice stirred over a smouldering fire. It’s a growing up process where babies turn – as Agu says – into old men, with no stage in between.
It should win an award, but I’m afraid it won’t. It’s probably too good for that.
Actually, this can’t be a stand-alone review. There is another film on child soldiers which everyone should watch alongside this, Johnny Mad Dog. I won’t compare the two directly, or say which I prefer; they complement each other, each filling in what the other leaves out.
Johnny Mad Dog is the eponymous leader of another group of dead-eyed psychopathic child soldiers in another African bush war. A few years older than Agu, he and his “men” are also quite different; they seem to have taken leave of their humanity altogether, along with a substantial portion of their sanity. They dress in everything from angel wings to wedding dresses, say things like “If you don’t want to die, don’t be born!” and kill and destroy with none of the mental agony Agu goes through. In this, actually, they are far more like the real-life African child soldier militias in wars in Liberia or Sierra Leone, where “commanders” like General Butt Naked (really, I promise you; really) ran their own little bands of underage psycho killers. And Laokole, a girl trying to flee the violence with her crippled father, is someone who keeps on encountering Johnny. Theirs, too, is a tragedy that is as inevitable as it is heartbreaking...and, yet, in its own way, it gives some smidgen of hope for the future.
The problem with Johnny Mad Dog is, actually, that the accents are even more impenetrable than those in Beasts Of No Nation; it’s English, and yet I found myself wishing for subtitles. And, strangely, while it’s even bleaker, if, possible, than the Elba film, the amount of explicit violence is rather less. The other thing about it is that some of the actors were real former child soldiers.
I had begun turning my Bisaria stories into a novel, and then put the project on hold. I think, now, I shall complete it.
I owe Agu and Johnny Mad Dog that much.