Beasts of No Nation (2015)
***Plot spoilers avoided***
In 2008, I watched a film about boy soldiers involved in the civil war in Liberia. It was called ‘Johnny Mad Dog’. When I saw the news that there was to be a new film about boy soldiers, this time starring the excellent Idris Elba, I was looking forward to seeing it. I watched it this morning, and decided to review it now, when it was still fresh in my mind.
The film is set in an unnamed country in West Africa. It begins in a small town in the countryside, and with the family of young Agu. He lives a happy enough life, with his parents, older brother, and baby sister. Fetching water from a communal pump, playing with his friends, and getting up to mischief. The town is poor, but they make the best of their lot, and his father has even given family land to help refugees from the war in a nearby country. Their own country is also in turmoil, with various rebel factions fighting for control of regions, and against the government forces that rule the country.
One day, they get the news that the war is coming close, and Agu’s father packs off his wife and baby to live with relatives in the capital city. They boys and men have to stay behind, to look after the stores and property in the town. Government troops arrive, shooting at random, and rounding up all the remaining people, who they accuse of being rebels. When it becomes obvious that they intend to execute everyone who is left, young Agu is told to run away. Lost and alone in the jungle, he stumbles across a rag-tag rebel force, comprised of small boys and young men. They take him to meet the leader, a fearsome man known only as ‘The Commandant’.(Elba) He takes the small boy in, and declares that he will train him to be a soldier.
Agu is initiated into the ways of the unit. He is not given food, and made to carry out menial tasks. For training, he is given a stick to use, and has to attend constant indoctrination lectures too. He makes friends with another small boy, Strika, who never speaks, and when they go off on their first mission, Agu is forced to kill a prisoner by The Commandant. Once he has done this, he is finally given an assault rifle, and hailed as a real soldier. As the battalion moves around the countryside, we see them taking part in old tribal rituals designed to increase their motivation, and to make them fearless of death. They also use a variety of narcotic drugs, to help make them desensitised to the fighting and killing they take part in.
Agu begins to realise that his home has gone, and he is unlikely to ever see his mother again. Under the spell of the charismatic Commandant, he starts to accept his new comrades as his real family. Led by the Commandant to more and more victories, they also attack and murder defenceless civilians, accusing them of helping the government troops. Agu is not only witness to many atrocities, he is involved in them too. When the battalion is summoned to a nearby city to see the Supreme Commander, Agu and Strika are chosen to be in the Commandant’s bodyguard, as trusted soldiers. Not only is the Commandant expecting to be promoted, he is also anticipating a share of riches from all the looting, and recognition of the successful fighting his unit has been involved in.
But their rebel faction has now been recognised by the United Nations, and marauding armies of young boys are bad publicity. The Commandant is unhappy with the news he receives in the city, and takes his forces back into the jungle, leading them to an uncertain fate. With no home to return to, and no cause to support any longer, they become ‘The Beasts of No Nation’ indeed.
This is at times an overwhelming film. It is beautifully shot, and delivers striking images alongside scenes that are frankly unsettling, and sometimes hard to watch. It deals unflinchingly with executions, murders, the brutal killing of women and children, and hints at child sexual abuse too. The battle scenes are reminiscent of news footage we may have seen from Liberia, Rwanda, and other war-torn African nations, with heavily-armed children in the thick of the action.
The group is like the ‘Lost Boys’ in Peter Pan, though armed with AK-47 rifles, and rocket launchers. Their uniforms are a mix of civilian clothes, and any equipment they can take from their dead enemies. Despite fighting a modern guerrilla war, they still carry totems, and engage in tribal dances. During breaks in the fighting, we see them returning to childish games like tag, or blind man’s buff, reminding us that these ruthless killers are still just small children.
Idris Elba is outstanding as the capricious Commandant. Friend one moment, heartless killer the next. Sometimes approaching the edge of madness, other times revealed as a cunning and greedy opportunist. But the most memorable performances come from the child actors. Abraham Attah is a revelation in the role of Agu. He was fourteen at the time of filming, but looks a lot younger. His expressive face can portray every emotion without the need for words to accompany the scene. Emmanuel Quaye as Strika, looking like a little boy lost, then joining in an attack without hesitation. Playing a mute, he manages to convey his feelings with his eyes. This is not a film you are likely to forget in a hurry, I assure you.
It may not be to everyone’s taste, to watch a film that shows such brutality. But it is a stark reminder of events that we usually only see for 90 seconds on the news, before changing channels, or popping out to make a cup of tea. And as a film, it is incredibly well made too.
If you think you can stand it, I recommend it without hesitation.
This is the short trailer.