Sunday, October 18, 2015

Sunday Review: Beasts of No Nations

A thin line between innocence and evil

By Morris Dean

We almost didn’t watch it this evening: Beasts of No Nations (2015, directed and screenplay written by Cary Joji Fukunaga). The tagline on Netflix, which bought the film’s distribution rights for $12 million, described it:
When civil war tears his family apart, a young West African boy is forced to join a unit of mercenary fighters and transform into a child soldier.
Great, we sure don’t want to spend Sunday evening watching child soldiers being exploited into becoming mass murderers....
    But Idris Elba was listed as in it, so surely....And I decided that I needed to watch something that would completely absorb me and take me out of myself. (I had come off a week during which my own thoughts were not always pleasant company.)
    Idris Elba's commanding movie persona from TV’s The Wire and Luther turned out to be perfect for the role of the Commandant, the sole adult authority in the movie’s rag-tag band of rebel soldiers co-opting innocent children to become what the Commandant himself acknowledges them all and himself to be: war criminals, indiscriminately looting, burning, killing, and raping. The Commandant even rubs this in the faces of the children at the end, when they have become burned out and desolate and want to leave. “You are war criminials, you are uneducated, do you think you are going to find a job?” (I paraphrase.)
    We all know that African children have been co-opted into war. We know it from the news, and you may know it (I didn’t) from Uzodinma Iweala's 2005 novel of the same title, on which the movie is based. The movie seems to me to be an accurate (certainly entirely credible) portrayal of the reality. And the young actor whom this film introduces, Abraham Attah, does a first-rate job. The character, Agu, is convincingly a child of desperation and sensitivity (his “innocence” already compromised by seeing his father and a brother murdered as he flees a rebel incursion into their previously buffered community). His judicious over-voice narration portrays a human being whose moral conscience continues to function throughout his ordeal of obedience to a strong authority, commitment of violent acts, and comforting bonding with the other youngsters as they fight to survive, suffer wounds, and die as they advance to fulfill the Commandant’s objectives. The actor’s entry in Wikipedia tells us that, “For his leading role of child soldier Agu, Attah was awarded the Marcello Mastroianni Award at the 72nd Venice International Film Festival.” Without having seen the competition, I can only applaud the award.
    I only wish that the movie told us how the Commandant became the man he is. Somehow, the easy assumption that he, in his turn, had been co-opted, doesn’t satisfy. But is that simply because each of us, in our own way, has also been co-opted into whatever niche of life we inhabit?

The Internet Movie Database website provides this storyline:
Follows the journey of a young boy, Agu, who is forced to join a group of soldiers in an unnamed West African country. While Agu fears his commander and many of the men around him, his fledgling childhood has been brutally shattered by the war raging through his country, and he is at first torn between conflicting revulsion and fascination Depicts the mechanics of war and does not shy away from explicit, visceral detail, and paints a complex, difficult picture of Agu as a child soldier.
    And I recommend A. O. Scott’review in the NY Times: “‘Beasts of No Nation,’ a Brutal Tale of Child Soldiers in Africa,” which opens with:
“A boy is a dangerous thing,” says the Commandant, who leads an army of young soldiers fighting a civil war in an unspecified West African country. He’s talking about Agu, a newly captured prisoner and also, potentially, a fresh recruit, who has fled into the forest hoping to escape the violence that has consumed his hometown.
   Agu, who describes himself as “a good boy from a good family,” seems perfectly harmless — a skinny preadolescent whose capacity for malice doesn’t extend beyond pranks directed at his vain, girl-crazy older brother. But the most heartbreaking thing about “Beasts of No Nation” is that both Agu and the Commandant are right. The line between innocence and evil is thinner than the blade of a machete.
Copyright © 2015 by Morris Dean

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