I was very impressed by director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Sin Nombre, a powerful film about illegal immigration and gang culture in Mexico and Central America. Conversely, I was stupefied by Fukunaga’s lame attempt to adapt Jane Eyre to the silver screen.
I am happy to report that Mr. Fukunaga is now back on solid ground with the adaptation of the novel Beasts of No Nation, a searing meditation on the fate of child soldiers in war-torn Africa. Although most of the film was shot in Ghana, no specific country is referred to as the narrative unfolds. Some critics found fault with Fukunaga’s generic portrait but as he himself pointed out, the story has a universal application with its focus on one particular child who is emotionally damaged after forced to become a soldier under the tutelage of his psychopathic commandant.
There have already been a number of novels and films on this very subject (the recent film ‘War Witch’ comes to mind), so was it necessary for Mr. Fukunaga to cover similar ground once again? The answer of course is yes, provided this child-soldier genre is handled in a non-derivative, unique way.
While the focus here is on black Africans, one should not come to conclusion that the ‘beasts’ of the title (child soldiers and their adult commanders) are a problem exclusive to the African continent.
It would also be wrong to conclude that Africans are savage people based on what one sees here. In fact, the victims in this film are all black Africans. Our protagonist, Abu’s father and brother, are murdered when soldiers from a newly installed junta accuse them of collaborating with a rebel group.
The story breaks into the second act when Abu is kidnapped by a group consisting of both adult and child soldiers who call themselves NDF, led by the ‘Commandant’ (menacingly played by the eminent actor Idris Elba). The Commandant intimidates Abu at first by referring to him as a ‘thing’. But soon the Commandant allows Abu to join the group by undergoing an initiation consisting of running through a gauntlet of soldiers who thrash him mercilessly. One boy falls before making it through the gauntlet and since he has shown weakness, his throat is slit and then he is apparently buried alive as witch doctors perform a ceremony to ‘cleanse’ the children’s’ ‘souls’.
The horror only escalates as the Commandant forces Abu to prove that he’s a ‘real man’ by hacking an educated man (an engineer) to death after he’s one of the few survivors of a convoy the Commandant’s group has ambushed.
Abu cannot understand why the other youngest in the group, Strika, never speaks. It soon becomes apparent that the Commandant is a pederast who has been sexually molesting the boy for quite a while. Soon Abu will become another victim of the Commandant’s perverse proclivities and he will fall silent too.
Later Abu participates in a number of battles, eventually leading to a skirmish in the capital. Abu clings to a woman inside a building they’ve just taken, mistaking her for his mother. Completely unhinged, Abu shoots an innocent victim to death.
Eventually the Commandant is summoned by NDF headquarters and learns he’s being kicked upstairs by the Supreme Commander–his lieutenant will now take control of the group. In the evening, at a brothel, the lieutenant is shot and as he is dying, accuses the Commandant of being responsible for the shooting.
When the Commandant orders his group back into the bush, against the orders of the Supreme Commander, they come under helicopter fire. After a few months, they run out of ammunition and the group (including Abu) rebels against the Commandant, and agrees to surrender to UN forces.
The story ends on a bittersweet note as Abu, now haunted by memories of his experiences, reveals that he’s still guided by the love of his parents and seeks to lead a normal life as best he can. He joins other children playing in the surf at a missionary school where they are staying.
If there’s any criticism to be offered here, one can point to some of the harried battle scenes which I often found to be unclear as to what exactly was transpiring.
Mr. Fukunaga did well in casting newcomer Abraham Attah as the beleaguered boy, Abu. His transition from an innocent child to savage child soldier, is to say the least, upsetting. Beasts of No Nation is often hard to watch. But as with good films about the Holocaust, one comes out of the theater much more aware about what’s going on in the world beyond the safe borders of our sheltered world.