Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Wed Dec 23, 2015 7:36 am 
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Child of war

After various documentaries about child soldiers and a few features related to the topic like Ezra (SFIFF 2008), Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (also 2008), the 2012 War Witch, and the related White Shadow (SFIFF 2014), Cary Fukunaga has made the best of them and his own most memorable work yet. Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing, visually splendid Netflix-released feature based on a novel by by the Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala (hia title taken from Fela Kuti's 1989 album). This is a tough watch, but one of the year's most memorable films, marked by the recreation of a terrifying and colorful world and two superb lead performances.

By reports (I haven't read it) the film is more directly linear than the book and loses a good measure of the latter's stark simplicity and fractured consciousness. The central narrator stays the same, young Agu (Abraham Attah), and his whispered voice-over drawn from the book is often heard. At first he is in his family, who are living in the UN buffer zone of an unidentified African country that's at war, so they are safe but his schoolteacher father (Kobina Amissah Sam) can no longer teach and he and his playmates must find things to do other than school. His play at "imagination TV" with an empty monitor shows wit, spirit, and thespian tendencies. Then very quickly tanks roll in, the safety is over, Agu's mother (Ama K. Abebrese) and little sister (Vera Nyarkoah Antwi) must abruptly flee in a car, and his father and older brother (Francis Weddey) are shot. Sobbing, terrified, Agu runs into the jungle and after a failed stab at living in the wild, is caught by the battalion of a warlord called "the Commandant" (Idris Elba), who immediately takes him under his wing to make him into a child soldier and protégé. His only friend becomes his initial recruiter, the mute Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye).

The intimate voice-over always keeps us close to Agu, but the cohesion and complexity of the film come from the fact that it's very much about the Commandant too. He's an odious villain, and a leader, father, savior, trainer for the young troops. The boys are his appendages, his robots, even his pets or catamites, the latter horror of the book only hinted at. They are drilled in what the sides in the war are and which they're on. They learn by rote what they may not understand. Their fighting and killing mode involves physical transformation, costumes, symbols, slogans, chants, and mind-altering drugs including marijuana and brown-brown (gunpowder and cocaine), one administered by slashing the forehead and rubbing it into the wound.

In his Venice review for Variety Justin Chang says Fukunaga's second feature Jane Eyre and season one of "True Detective" established him as "one of the more gifted visual stylists of his filmmaking generation." This is indeed a primary element; and due to an early injury of the dp, Fukunaga took over the role of cinematographer himself. The scenes are so grotesque and violent we may miss how beautiful and well observed they are. Though this is a more coherent, stronger narrative than other stabs at the topic and is wonderfully acted, Beasts is most clearly outstanding for the sheer authenticity and richness of it look, its people, its coastal Ghana landscapes, its interiors.

Agu's change into a cold, hardened killer is a process both sudden and subtle. His initiation requires hacking a prisoner to death, a horrible sight for us and a moment of transformation for him. But perhaps mroe wrenching is the moment when he and his cohorts invade a house and he suddenly thinks he's found his mother. He clutches onto her piteously. Then, realizing she isn't his mother after all, hd turns on her and denounces her as a witch. But Attah, though this is his first film, is a gifted actor, and more impressive than any of these striking action scenes is simply the way the camera reveals the altered expression on his face that goes from what Chang calls "a grave, soulful reserve" to pained and distant.

The shared focus on the Commandant keeps a (relatively) larger perspective so we get some sense of campaigns and takeovers of objectives, the seizing of a bridge: the conduct of a war. But the Commandant is small too. He must deal constantly with his own Supreme Commander Dada Goodblood (Jude Akuwudike) who in turn must answer to higher authority. And when the Commandant must meet with him in humiliating circumstances that lead to his revolt, Agu and Sticka are his bodyguards, and so, conveniently, they too are present, and we feel and share the humiliation. Idris Elba's performance is understated, casual, natural, offhand -- it's the essence of what it means to inhabit a role -- and so, despicable as he may be, we feel for him too as we realize his realm is limited and local. And ultimately this well-written story leads us to devolution -- to revolt, desertion, the threat of war crimes tribunals, and programs of rehabilitation. We begin to grasp more and more, to our horror, the full sense of what Agu means when he says midway, that if this ever ends, he does not think he can ever return to "child things." He is not a child, not an adult, a beast of no nation -- though the final image is a hopeful one of Agu running down to the water and diving in to play.

As Justin Chang says, Beasts goes on a little long. It may lose momentum in the last third (I did not feel that). It can be accused of failing to represent something larger, perhaps through keeping its references to any particular conflict vague. It is nonetheless an extraordinarily coherent, intense, visceral treatment of a difficult subject that inhabits this world, with nothing touristic, colonizing, or Hollywood about it.

Beasts of No Nation, 137 mins., debuted at Venice Sept. 2015; winning the Marcello Mastroianni Award for Abraham Attah. Many subsequent nominations and some awards, other festivals including Toronto. Netflix made this their first feature release, paying $12 million for the worldwide rights. It also had Oscar-qualifying theatrical release via Bleecker Street Media (Brazil, UK, USA) beginning 16 Oct. 2015 with the streaming release (in the Internet for half a dozen countries), and lasted in NYC through the third week of Dec. 2015. This is a film that well deserves wide screen viewing. Metacritic rating 79%. See detailed description of the film and shooting conditions by Global Film Initiative.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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