I already knew what I was in for; a movie about civil war in Africa and it’s harsh reality complete with the verbal, physical, and sexual abuse of child soldiers. I knew that it was cringe worthy. I knew that there would be scenes that would cause me to cry, to want to scream, to want to hold everyone I hold dear and tell them how much I loved them. I knew that I would pause the movie several times to wrap my brain around the terror and horrible situation that I knew was about to play out. I knew that I would finish this movie and reflect on my own life and struggles in respect to the ones I just saw and know that my sorrows pale in comparison. I knew that this story, although the characters may be fictitious, is the true life story of so many.
And still I decided to watch it. Not because it is entertaining. Not so that I could tell my friends that I watched it complete with subtitles. Not so that I could chime in on just how award worthy this drama is. I watched it because I felt like I owed it to the people who have lost so much. Not only did people lose their lives, a lot of people also lost their innocence, security, sanity, self respect, and dignity. I felt like my slight discomfort would have to take a back seat this time.
This film, directed by Cary Fukunaga is based on the book of the same name written by Uzodinma Iweala. It is a very graphic and condensed account of the horrific and heartbreaking conditions child soldiers endured during the West African Civil Wars. Though specific countries are not named, there are many references to the UN and ECOMOG, both of which intervened with Sierra Leone and other West African conflicts. Instead of RUF, the rebel group in Beasts of No Nation goes by the acronym NPD and is is lead by a war commander who goes strictly by Commandant. Commandant played by Idris Elba portrays your typical abuser; he presents himself as a savior or rescuer, he takes the young boys under his wing, he teaches them how to “survive”, and just as he pulls them in, he does the most unspeakable and unforgivable thing. And he does this all the while calling the boy’s family and his sons. The lead character, Agu, played by Abraham Attah, has lost so much and in such a short period of time. No sooner than he was ripped from his mother’s arms as she flees their country from an impending civil war, very shortly after, he loses his father and brothers. His adolescent mind has no time to process all of this madness before he is captured in the bush by the Commandant and his battalion of boy soldiers. The boys look as though they range in age from about as old as 20 and as young as about 6 or 7. Agu and another boy who soon becomes his closest friend, a boy naked Stricka who doesn’t talk but understands everything, are about the same age. They are the perfect age for the commandant to not only brain wash them, but to force himself upon them and hurt them in ways that they never imagined were possible at such a young age. After watching the scene where the Commandant deflowers young Agu, I realized that most likely all of the young men on the batalion have suffered the same fate, as they all are sporting some type of embellished head gear like the one the commandant gave Agu as a “gift”. One if the most heinous things that the Commandant does to control the soldiers is to wave the carrot of being reunited with their families again. It’s also how he’s able to get them to kill. The boys also are given drugs, alcohol, and some of them are offered prostitues.
This is one of the most tragic and beautifully made movies that I have seen in a while. As i watched I couldn’t help but to think about movies like Children of God, Beasts of a Southern Wild, and another movie that was also directed by Fukunaga, Sin Nombre. They are not all the same stories but to me they somehow all go into the same vein of movies where kids are in some of the most tragic situations. Fukunaga does an excellent job of showing the rawness of the boy soldiers without villanizing them. Even as they are killing and raping and pillaging, you never lose sight in the movie of the fact that they are the victims. You never forget that at the end of the day, they are children who didn’t ask to be where they are, but were brainwashed because they lost their families.
My favorite scene is the opening scene. A soldier is telling a group of young boys that the shell of a television is trash and not worth any value. To prove him wrong they act out different scenes as the soldier watches through the vacant hole where the picture tube once was. “Imagination TV” is what they called it. As I watched the scene I smiled and thought of myself at that age and how I used to do things just like they did. I also thought that the scene was sad because I knew what lay ahead for the characters.
In another part of the movie, Agu says, “I cannot be going back to do child things.” Such a simple phrase but yet so profound. At that moment, I lost it. I cried for a solid 15 minutes as I continued to watch the rest of the story unfold.
I read a review of the movie where a writer says that at one point, the movie tries to humanize and make you feel sorry for the Commandant. The writer was upset at how the movie played with your emotions that way, which is understandable. I myself hate when movies try to invoke compassion for characters who have been portrayed as the most vile creatures of the Earth. Those characters don’t get my tears or my sympathy. I sat on the edge of my seat waiting for this moment in Beasts of No Nation. I had myself completely ready to comment back on his article with wurfs of validation, but, I never saw what he did. What I did see was the unraveling of an insane dictator and abuser who had been demoted and hunted like a dog by what was most likely his abuser. I saw him dragging these children further and further into his madness as they were slowly dying of hunger, illness, and thirst. Eventually the children widened up and turned on him. They were hungry. They were tired. They were dying, and for what? The Commandabt did make a last ditch effort to make his claim of saving them and being their father figure. He told Agu that he would be back because he needed him. He tried his hand one last time at manipulating the boys to stay. Thank God, in this movie that did not work.
In the end, the boys leave the Commandant and are eventually detained by the UN. Like the child soldiers of Sierra Leone, the attempt is being made to reintegrate the children back into society. On one of the last scenes where Agu and another boy plead for their friends not to go back into the bush, I’m reminded of how many times I’ve seen people return to less ideal and deplorable circumstances because of the sense of normalcy they got from the chaos. Or, they simply went back because they felt like they were a lost cause. Even though I couldn’t say I know the pain that they all felt, I could definitely relate to Agu’s frustration at seeing his friends go back to the hell they escaped.
When the movie ends there is no neat conclusion. There is no summation. There is no solution to Agu’s and the other boys problems or the civil war in their country. The movie just ends with Agu coming to these harsh realizations that no child should have to come to.
As bleak and grim as this movie sounds, I strongly recommend watching it. It’s not a movie like you have never seen before, but the story is one that deserves to be heard over and over again. Beasts of No Nation, like similar movies to it, makes you think and it makes you feel. It awakened me more to just how terrible a lot of people who look like me have it around the world. The worst part is that a lot of those people are children.