Johnny Mad Dog first published by Film4
Summary: Children lose their innocence in an unnamed, wartorn African state.
Review: With his first feature-length film, the documentary Carlitos Medellin (2004), Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire showed the devastation inflicted on the lives of young people by endless factionalisation and conflict in Colombia. While his second feature, Johnny Mad Dog, is not strictly a documentary, and is set in an unnamed country in Africa, its theme is much the same – and its use of former child soldiers from Liberia (where it was shot) to play in effect themselves, not to mention its utter eschewal of the conventional pleasures of narrative, ensures its realist credentials. Those of a sensitive or sentimental disposition, however, or just those in search of easy viewing, should be warned that Sauvaire’s film aims straight and takes no prisoners.
You can take comfort in the fact that Johnny Mad Dog was made with the full support of the Republic of Liberia and its postwar president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf. You can take comfort in the fact that the filmmakers have established the Johnny Mad Dog Foundation which will continue to assist the development of Monrovia’s abandoned youth. You can even take some small comfort in the fact that Johnny Mad Dog is ‘only a movie’, drawn from Emmanuel Dongala‘s fictionalised account of child soldiers (Johnny Chien Méchant) in the rather different African conflict zone of the Congo – although the montage of Patrick Robert’s actual Liberian war photos shown during the final credits, and their alarming similarity to all that has preceded on-screen, will greatly reduce that comfort. And there is precious little else in this raw, confronting film to let filmgoers remain within their complacent comfort zones.
Forced into soldiery at age ten and unable to remember his real name, 15-year-old Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie) is leading his ‘Small Boy Unit’ in a vicious assault on his country’s capital, under orders from General Never Die (Joseph Duo). Grotesquely costumed and drugged up, the boys have been brainwashed into hating anyone connected to the nation’s dominant Dogo tribe, and promised riches and family reunions should they succeed in bringing down the Dogo presidency – and so they terrorise, loot, rape and massacre their way through the city’s streets, leaving nothing but death and sorrow in their wake. Meanwhile, 16-year-old student Laokolé (Daisy Victory Vandy) is struggling to keep her invalid father and her little brother safe from the advancing chaos.
Right from its opening scenes, cut up fast and loud in apparent imitation of machine-gun fire, Johnny Mad Dog is the cinematic equivalent of a bullet to the head. Johnny may be the film’s central ‘character’, his prominent status (and wayward aspirations) enshrined in the film’s very title, but Sauvaire makes it impossible to root for him or any of his young comrades, engaged as they all are in the business of wholesale atrocities. Sauvaire does, however, constantly remind us that these marauding monsters are, after all, just children, wrested from the love of their families and brutalised into service. An early scene offers a glimpse into the horrific methods of child recruitment, while other scenes show the swiftly fatal consequences of any attempt to desert. Johnny’s lieutenant No Good Advice (Dagbeh Tweh) is depicted as the least hesitant murderer in the company, but his near instant emotional attachment to, of all things, a requisitioned pig suggests an untapped chasm of need in his life. Similarly Johnny himself, apparently devoid of all feeling, surprises us with tears in a key (and morally complicated) scene near the end.
Laokolé’s path crosses with Johnny’s three times in the film, and one might be expecting this graceful, devoutly Christian character to save the rampaging delinquent and lend the film’s narrative a classic redemptive arc – but Sauvaire prefers to leave the possibility of forgiveness and salvation hanging in the balance, ending his film with a question mark held, like a gun, right in the viewer’s face. It is not clear what will happen next, but these two young individuals’ lives have already long since been ruined. After all, when, near the end, Johnny responds to a recording of a Martin Luther King Jr. speech about the end of black enslavement by declaring that the speaker is in fact “the president”, and adding, “But now, we need our money. We need our fuckin’ money!”, you know that the dream is over, and that the only things that can (and will) follow are disillusionment and despair.
Verdict: The kids are not alright. Raw, harrowing and unforgiving, Johnny Mad Dog is hardly easy to enjoy, but impossible to forget.
© Anton Bitel