Beasts of No Nation first published by Sight & Sound, December 2015
Review: [contains spoilers] We hear children chanting a childish song, and see them playing in a dusty field, their game framed through a screenless television set. “It is starting like this,” says the voice-over of young Agu (extraordinary newcomer Abraham Attah), who, with the even younger Dike, is trying to sell what he calls his “imagination TV” to anyone who will buy it. He even gets Dike to enact soap opera and ‘kung fu’ scenarios in front of it, or to poke his head through the set to show off its ‘3D’ capability. Eventually a sceptical Nigerian peacekeeper ‘buys’ the TV with food packets, and Agu moves onto another extortionate scam with his older brother and Dike, even as Agu’s father wonders why he has a working television without its housing. That eviscerated TV is an apt metaphor for Beasts of No Nation, which similarly presents us with familiar imagery and themes, while removing them from their context. The setting may be an anonymous African country caught up in a vaguely delineated civil conflict, but its wartorn status, the atrocities committed by all sides against civilians, and the rebels’ practice of forcibly recruiting child soldiers, are all too easily recognisable by anyone who watches the TV news (or has seen Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog, 2008).
These early scenes are important, as they establish the rhythms of a relative normality, and reveal Agu as a resourceful, imaginative child within a nurturing, supportive home that easily accommodates both his individuality and his unruliness. Yet as government soldiers and rebels alike converge on Agu’s supposedly ‘safe’ village, the young boy will find himself violently wrenched from those he loves, and inducted into the new ‘family’ of a ragtag guerrilla battalion, where an unnamed ‘Commandant’ (Idris Elba) is self-appointed ‘father’ to all under his authority. Structured around the contrast between Agu’s prior home life and his subsequent coming of age in the field, Beasts of No Nation is punctuated by different forms of play. At the beginning there are children’s joyous games in Agu’s hometown; and in the end, as Agu goes through a gradual process of rehabilitation at a UN shelter, he tentatively joins other boys in a game of football in the surf, cautiously dipping his toe back into childhood in a markedly liminal location. In between, while Agu is with the Commandant, there are games of a decidedly more violent kind: a full-contact football match in the training camp, ending in blows; and a high-stakes initiation ritual that requires novice soldiers to run a gauntlet of clubs, with anyone who fails having his throat unceremoniously slit. Even the children’s singing that we hear in the opening scene is later converted – and perverted – into war songs.
Beasts of No Nation offers an eyewitness account of war’s horrors from one too young to see, let alone to participate in, such events. Drawn from the 2005 novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala, the film retains some of Agu’s first-person narration from the book, including the peculiar syntax and cadence of his words, which are not always easy to make out (and not just owing to the noise of combat and the babble of background noise that drowns him out). Still, Agu’s post-eventum voice-over restores a modicum of agency to a character who is otherwise a passive victim along for the infernal ride. This account of the things that happen to Agu is now also his own story in his own words – a story which he can only start telling at the film’s end, in the past tense, once he has returned to a semblance of civilisation and begun reclaiming his humanity. There is a clear contrast here with his best friend among the child soldiers, Strika (another first-time actor, Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom), who never speaks, and never leaves the jungle, his muteness, though certainly literal, serving also as a metaphor for powerlessness. Agu’s first-person narration, which regularly comments on events, is also an omen of the boy’s future recovery, and so leaves a trail of hope through the film’s otherwise despairing trajectory of descent and depravity.
Screenwriter and director Cary Joji Fukunaga, already well know for helming Sin Nombre (2009), Jane Eyre (2011) and the first series of television’s True Detective (2014), is here responsible for the cinematography too. He keeps the focus fixed on Agu’s immediate experience, even occasionally tinging the roads, fields and urban landscapes in lysergically filtered colours to reflect the numbing effects of drugs on Agu’s perception. Agu’s hardening into a combat-ready soldier is expressed through a seamlessly cut montage that shows his humanity chipped away in a trial by fire of drilling repetitions and brutalising circumstances. In one particular sequence, the camera snakes and winds its way – at length and without any cuts – through a raided building, tracking Agu, high and traumatised, as he first tries to embrace a terrified woman whom he has mistaken for his own mother, and then, after seeing his comrades begin to rape her, shoots her dead himself, before surveying the murder and mayhem taking place in the town below. The sheer technical bravura of this single take embeds and implicates us in the action with Agu while simultaneously alienating us from it, and so conveys something of the dissociative nature of Agu’s ambivalent rampages. For here Agu is all at once clinging, desperate child and cold-eyed, premature adult – and that jarring disjunction is key to why he holds our sympathies even as he does terrible things.
Charismatic, devious, brave and hypocritical, the Commandant cuts a complex figure as Agu’s chief and chief antagonist: as trapped in the militia’s chain of command as Agu, he knows that he is caught between a vengeful enemy, a self-serving Supreme Commander (Jude Akuwudike), the menace of mutiny, and a human rights tribunal. Where Agu’s real father was a community teacher, Agu finds in the Commandant a paramilitary substitute who gives contradictory lessons in total obedience and eventual, inevitable betrayal, while corrupting fatherhood into abuse and outrage. Fukunaga’s film asks if, in so bestial a classroom, it is possible to retain something of one’s integrity, if not innocence, and to reframe one’s experiences, however horrific, via the imagination and storytelling. Fukunaga also rewrites the Commandant’s end: in Iweala’s novel he is murdered by a new lieutenant, whereas here even Agu, invited by the Commandant himself to pull the trigger, declines, and merely deserts his leader along with the other starving, disgruntled troops. Left to a rough wooden throne in a muddy, empty kingdom, the Commandant shouts after his departing men, “Remember, I will call for you again, and you will come,” in words that serve as a pathetic signifier of his deluded self-importance, while also pointing to the likelihood of further trouble down the line. Alive or dead, the Commandant has left a deep scar in this traumatised band of beasts, and will not easily be exorcised or forgotten.
Beasts of No Nation looks set to rape and pillage the traditional model of film distribution. Bought up by Netflix, it will make cinematic history on 16th October 2015 as the first feature to be released globally on their global streaming service at the same time as in theatres, leading four major US exhibitors, worried about the damage wrought to their audience figures and earnings by this loss of exclusivity, to boycott it. Yet it seems entirely in keeping with that opening image (Agu’s world through a television set) that this film’s constructed realities should be framed all at once for the big and small screens. Imagination fills in the gaps.
Synopsis: An unnamed West African country. As government and rebel forces converge on a ‘safe’ town (and refugee centre), local boy Agu is separated from his fleeing mother, and then sees his father and big brother shot by invading soldiers. Hiding in the jungle, Agu is picked up by an ‘NDF’ rebel battalion led by ‘the Commandant’, and brutally trained as a recruit. After Agu’s first military engagement – a bridge ambush – the Commandant makes him murder a POW with a machete. Over a succession of raids and skirmishes, Agu and the similarly aged Strika become the Commandant’s trusted bodyguards – and sexual playthings.
Learning from the NDF’s Supreme Commander that he is to be demoted as part of a political compromise with the UN, the Commandant has his second-in-command (and putative replacement) murdered, and goes rogue with his guerrillas, hoping to pillage for profit. In a jungle attack, Strika is shot and dies. Holed up, with virtually no munitions or food, in a trenched encampment that they are mining for ores, the men mutiny and desert the Commandant. After a tense confrontation with the Commandant, Agu joins them. Picked up by UN Peacekeepers, Agu ends up in a coastal rehabilitation centre for child soldiers, where he begins to open up to a counsellor and play with the other children.