Have you ever wondered exactly how a child manages to find a gun in their hands during war time?According to the children’s charity, UNICEF, it’s easier than you imagine. More than 300,000 child soldiers are currently being exploited in situations of armed conflict all around the world (not just in Africa) and the Netflix film Beasts of No Nation shows you how it happens in heartbreaking detail.
Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 debut novel, filmmaker Cary Joji Fukunaga (True Detective – Season One, Jane Eyre, Sin Nombre), the film is set in an unnamed African nation (though it seems very much like Nigeria, although filmed in neighbouring Ghana). Armies are fighting for territorial control, raiding villages on their way and taking men and young boys – with no fighting experience – away to become soldiers. The children are mostly orphaned or separated from their families as a result of the reigning terror -children are turned into underage killing machines.
The film stars Idris Elba as the twisted, controlling Commandant of a guerilla army, fighting against the government. But while the star is phenomenally charismatic and memorable (even his accent is admirable, considering his usual London accent), it is the brilliant debut by Abraham Attah as Agu that stands out and should win this film many, many awards. Through Agu’s young eyes, we experience how a once perfectly happy, good student from a close and loving family is turned into a fearless, heartless child soldier who thinks nothing of killing with any weapon to hand, raping and pillaging villages very much like the happy place he once lived.
The story zeroes in on Agu’s life. He is bright, happy and well-loved by his family: his father is a respected schoolteacher in the village, his caring mother, his sex-obsessed (but not in a creepy way, more a young adult way) older brother and a baby sister cherished by all. School is suspended because of the outbreak of war and Filmmaker Fukunaga keeps the camera close up on the Agu’s subtly expressive face, allowing us to observe the changes in his life literally through Agu’s eyes. Although Agu becomes a “good soldier,” he always remains a child at heart who ultimately knows wrong from right, despite the actions life has forced upon him.
When Agu’s village is annihilated by a bloodthirsty militia, hellbent on destroying everyone in his village, Agu has to watch his father being slain – shot at point blank range because the madwoman of the town pretends not to recognise them. When, later, Agu the child soldier carries out a similar evil act on another village, it is at this point you realise it is difficult to blame these soldiers, forced into a sadistic war where ‘kill or be killed’ is the only way of a life that has very little value in the grand scheme of war.
But watching Agu’s descent from his happy-go-lucky family life to becoming an orphan and then being caught in the bush and forced to become a monster soldier at such a young age (around 10 or 11) is utterly terrifying. The filmmaker apparently discovered Abraham Attah — an uneducated, 14-year-old Ghanaian street vendor — during an improv acting session he conducted with 29 other non-actor kids. This young boy expressed every single emotion honestly, and openly to the camera through his face, his eyes. Thus it is this connection with him that will break every viewers heart. An oscar is calling, and if not, Planetfem wants to know why not.
Conversely, Elba plays his evil role with much aplomb. He peacocks makes grand statements, controls and manipulates his group of young men into doing whatever he wants them to do – including sexually. For Agu, he immediately understands that this child is mourning the loss of his father and so he steps into that role in order to completely control him, turning Agu into his best, most loyal killing machine.
With a beautiful West African soundtrack, Fukunaga’s shaky, close-up/pull-back camerawork takes the viewer on the emotional journey they need to take in order to find out how in wartime, a Beast of No Nation is created.
Available to watch on Netflix, now.
photo credit: Indiewire/ The 3AS