I can’t think of many films that more viscerally render the lives of young people caught up in a tumultuous war than Beasts of No Nation. [This film is available in limited release and on Netflixs; it’s an adaptation of a 2006 novel of the same name by Nigerian writer Uzodinma Iweala.]
The closest film that I can think of that explores children of crisis is the 2003 film City of God which is about a twenty year long friendship between two kids in one of Rio de Janeiro’s more crime-ridden favelas, a small patch of ground where big acts of violence in the drug trade are regularly committed. Barely out of childhood, the two are recruited into the gangs fighting for turf and learn the trade so well, and, taking advantage of the death of many of the kingpins, they take over the reins in their late teens.
Beasts of No Nation takes place in a modern but nameless Africa nation where strife between a corrupt government (the PLF), an army junta (the NRG), and various tribal peoples is the order of the day. The military take-over is swift and the killing of rural peoples entirely random. The army sweeps into an agriculture village and kills the modest farmer father and Bible-reading mother of the pre-teen Agu. Agu is “recruited” by the rebel (NDF) and quickly attracts the attention of The Commandant, the charismatic but rapacious leader of the rag-tag outfit.
The film is about the episodic encounters of the insurgents with the army and, at its heart, about the transformation of Agu into a zealous, but deeply conflicted, member of the troop.
Prior to the sudden arrival of the Army storm-troopers, the mischievous Agu leads a rather pre-adolescent blissful life and is the acknowledged play-maker among his peers. Once forcefully taken, he’s hardly the only young one among the renegades; seemingly more than half of the troops are child-soldiers carrying big machine guns and some, like Strika, have responsibilities too large for his narrow shoulders to carry. This is hardly Fagan’s charming gang of London pickpockets or even the atavistic prep school boys of The Lord of the Flies, a tale that this story makes look like an armchair laboratory experiment in social relations.
Central to the movie is the twisted chemistry between the Commandant, beautifully played by British actor Idris Elba, and Agu (Abraham Attah, a gifted child actor who is in his first movie). If you thought that Quvenzhane Wallis’s performance in the 2009 Beasts of the Southern Wild was outstanding (she was the youngest Academy Award nominee ever), make the comparison. A brutal military junta is a greater foe than a hurricane, and the fantasy elements in Benh Zeitlin’s film are nowhere to be found in starkly realistic Africa.
Little is offered in the way of the Commandant’s political motivation other than his need, as he says, to address the blood of his people that has been shed for centuries. There may be a parallel between his explanations and those of the poor and the long disenfranchised Iraqi Sunnis who are willing to join ISIS.
The film suggests that it is the Commandant’s outsized desire for control that propels him. And it’s fairly obvious that the orphan Agu is looking for a protective father in an uncertain and violent world. Thus, we have the mentor putting his young charge through a number of loyalty tests, including a showcase killing of a captured foe. As he does with all of his subordinates, the astute Commandant alternates between strict task-master and indulgent protector as well as creator of communal rituals. The only future that they can imagine is a future with him leading the march through the jungle. The Commandant may bring to mind the elusive warlord Joseph Kony, who became an object of a massive hunt inspired by a viral internet campaign that labelled him as African Public Enemy #1.
One watches with high interest as Agu struggles to reconcile the Christian morality taught to him by his mother and the calls to sinful action by the Commandant. A young boy can have a crisis of faith every bit as complicated as adult, and even more complicated than that of any adult who has never been subject to the same kind of existential threat as his. At one point he plaintively asks, “God, are you watching what we are doing today?” It’s a profound question that is transformed later into a bleaker statement: “God is not listening.” It’s the despair of a soul who believes that the only way for the fighting to be over is his death.
To his credit, screenwriter and director Cary Fukunaga (who did the first season of True Detective) doesn’t telegraph the ending. To the last image we are wondering what will happen to this poor child caught up in the fog of war.