Innocence, Chaos and Conflict
TLR Rating: 7 1/2 Reels.
Truth is perhaps the only thing that makes us uncomfortable. ‘Beasts of No Nation’, the first Netflix original feature film, discomfits the ‘civilized psyche’ by presenting the reality of an unspecified war torn nation somewhere in West Africa. Adapted from a 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, this movie circles around a young skinny boy named Agu and his interpretation of the civil war.
Agu (played by Abraham Attah), a smart and observant kid, lives with his family in a village, located in the buffer zone. As the school is closed due to war, he tries hard to keep himself busy along with his friends and his narcissist elder brother. His mischievous idea to sell the frame of a broken television set as the ‘Imagination TV’ sets the milieu of a safe haven amid chaos. Agu’s father, a teacher by profession, is the ideal figure of the narrative. As a section leader, he tries to help the refugees at the time of violence and conflict. The village seems to be completely isolated from the world, protected by the UN peacekeeping army. But, the circumstances begin to change as soon as the village comes under the conflict zone. Agu misses the chance to leave the village with his mother and he is destined to stay with his father and brother. After a clash between the army and the rebels, the innocent villagers are executed by the army officials as they fail to prove their intention to stay at their home despite of official warnings. Losing his family, Agu somehow manages to escape from the village and take shelter in the adjoining forest. Later in the day, he is rescued by a group of rebels led by ‘The Commandant’ (played by Idris Elba). Realizing the only way to stay alive is to participate in this carnage, Agu steps into the world of terror as a soldier and soon becomes the center of attraction. He finds a friend in ‘Strika’ (played by Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye) while adapting the lifestyle of a militant. His struggle to cope up with the violence, losing adolescence and again escaping from this world with a changed soul navigate rest of the narrative.
The mercenary unit, made of kids and teenagers, is stitched with a unique bond, their fate. Free flow of drugs, murder and death in front of their eyes snatch the innocence from these ‘young boys’. The sadistic commandant is the flag bearer of Agu’s story. Director and screenplay writer Cary Joji Fukunaga creates a collage of shades on screen with this character. The platoon has unquestionable loyalty and respect for the commandant in spite of his absence in direct combat. His ideals and pre-combat speeches instigate an urge to fight among the kids, pretending as soldiers. But, this fatherly figure falls down in Agu’s eyes after a night of sexual abuse. Soon, the commandant also finds himself detached from the cause of the war, seeing his aspiration to become the general of the NDF (Native defense force) is getting tarnished by his leader. The story of this ruthless, pedophile militant is relatable because of its portrayal as a mere human being. Contrary to its name, the film deals with a bunch of misguided people, who often find themselves in contradiction with their belief. That is how without the support of his drugged subordinates, the feared leader becomes an object of pity. These unique and uncanny attributes of the character make him the thread to hold the two worlds together. Agu, on the other hand, redefines himself with his profound understanding of the war when he says “I saw terrible things… and I did terrible things. So if I’m talking to you, it will make me sad and it will make you too sad. In this life… I just want to be happy in this life.”
The portrayal of Agu by Abraham Attah is the most refreshing part of an ‘uneasy’ watch. Idris Elba as the commandant is one of the gemstones offered by the film. It’s perhaps the best character he has played till date. Rising to fame for directing the much-acclaimed first season of HBO’s ‘True Detective’, Fakunga avoids the unnecessary cinematographic finesse to focus more on the subject. Shot by a single camera, the frames are accurate, believable and suitable for the small screen.
Although movies based on African conflicts are abundant in American cinema, ‘Beasts of No Nation’ is categorically different from the movies like ‘Blood diamond’, ‘Hotel Rwanda’ or ‘The Last King of Scotland’. These films see the war torn continent from an outsider’s perspective and treats it more as a political turmoil. The human crisis of these never ending political conflicts are often overlooked. Here, this film stands out as it is seen from the perspective of a kid suffering from the biggest fallacy of human civilization. It makes the audience uncomfortable but aware of our ignorance towards the socio-political climate of the Dark Continent. The maiden venture of Netflix into feature filmmaking is prominent and indicates the changing dynamics of cinema, in terms of subject and treatment.
Trivia: Cary Fukunaga casted real former child soldiers and members of the various factions from the Sierra Leone and Liberian Civil War as extras and consultants but they ran into difficulty getting everyone onto the set in Ghana because they were held up in the Ivory Coast as suspected mercenaries. (Source: IMDb)
The author is a software engineer at Infosys, an avid cinephile and an efficient procrastinator.