Director-Cary Fukunaga’s excellent presentation and tiny breakdown of Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel-Beasts of No Nation into a movie with the same title brings out the odd beauty in war without undermining the intrinsic brutalities well associated with a jungle and haphazardly coordinated war—where child soldiers are the ultimate killing machines.
The film opens with young Ghanaian actor-Abraham Attah (who plays Agu) living in a small village, which served as a buffer zone for UN peacekeepers in an unnamed country plunged into war—but soon, the well protected village also lost its safety net.
Immediately before an attack which throws the almost peaceful village into insane panic, Agu’s mother (played by Ama K. Abebrese) and his younger sister joined the women and children of the village in a chaotic escape to a city as the men stayed behind to defend their lands.
Agu, who at this stage had connected well with viewers from the earlier few scenes which showcased him as an innocent silly young man left with nothing meaningful to do except to indulge in all manner of jokes and tricks with his friends and family because of the war was left behind—alongside his older brother and father.
A brutal attack on the village ignited the vehicle that drove the whole film. Agu’s first hand experience of the viciousness of war: the killing of his father and brother right in front of him pushed his legs to run far into the forest in search for refuge.
Soon, Agu the innocent one man refugee on the run became a member of a ferocious battalion, led by Commandant (played by Idris Elba). But this was after the film-maker had cleverly and in detail broken into particles the sort of tough trainings and spiritual initiations new intakes including Agu had to undergo—to become full family members of the battalion.
Though the film is vague about why war had broken out and the actual mission of Agu’s new family of soldiers, including several child soldiers—it makes it obvious the battalion holds no mercy and has no conscience within which it operates. It’s a deranged unit made up of unstable products of the war to kill and capture villages.
The brutalities of the war seen through Agu’s eyes, backed by his narrative put on screen: the violence, gruesome killings and the unending desire of the soldiers to fight for what seems like a blank promise founded on deceit. And in between these atrocities which Agu plays pivotal role lived his fears, the uncertainty of the future and his hunger to see his mother again.
Agu and the battalion were profoundly cruel and the film successfully depicts them as so. In one of the scenes, the viewer is served with the chopping of a man’s head by Agu and another child soldier-Strika (played by Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye, also young first-time actor) with blood splashing all over the filming camera’s lens, consequently, the screen.
Cary Fukunaga was unbending in showing the horror of war, committed by bush based mercenaries made up of civilians whose individual experience of having lost directions and families to the war have turned them into indomitable killing machines. Fukunaga also looked beyond the cruelty these “soldiers” met out to innocent civilians—and tackled the brutality these soldiers themselves, especially the child soldiers suffer in the hands of their leaders during wars.
Ironically, such in-camp rough treatment toughened the child soldiers and in Agu’s case turned him into a vile monster.
The flow of Agu’s narrative, his human take on the unfolding warfare, the self doubt and his worries were poignant and though he was aware of the evilness of their actions—that was the only option available to any of them at the time. As Agu puts it: “Bullet is just eating everything,” and the only way out is to die.
When Agu’s conscience as a human being was challenged, it was to do with two evils—and he had to choose the lesser evil. This was when he had to kill a woman to end an on-going rape by his colleagues. Agu had killed without mercy and knew the smell of death—which made death the reasonable alternative to the unending anarchy.
Nextflix took a huge risk with this production and its direct release on its platform—which resulted in a boycott from 4 US major cinema chains but the brilliance achieved by Cary Fukunaga and the superb performance from Ghana’s first time actor-Abraham Attah as well as Idris Elba’s master play as Commandant make it a commendable risk.
Because of the particle by particle breakdown of the structures of the war which captures in full the associated horrors and fears, the film succeeds in convincing the viewer as to the monstrousness of the soldiers, especially their leader—such that when it later tried to inject into Idris Elba’s character a human attribute when their indistinct mission had fallen, it clearly failed.
Idris had successfully played a War Lord who had not only led the killing of many in horrendous ways but had also physically abused his own soldiers—therefore, an attempt to later present him as a character with a bit of compassion was unconvincing, somewhat a joke.
‘Beasts of No Nation’ draws you into a real war, it shows up the horror without gratuitous bowdlerization. The fact that the set where the film was shot in Ghana saw extras imprisoned, crew members held at gunpoint, the director and Idris Elba having caught malaria as well as a star falling off a cliff should tell you that, it tackled a tough subject and it was adamant to present it in its original taste and feel.
The film received rave reviews at the 2015 Venice International Film Festival, with its star Abraham Attah winning the prestigious Marcello Mastroianni’s Best Young Actor award—maybe the Oscars and the other notable award schemes won’t miss its brilliance.