All God's Chillun Got Guns
Distinct from big, conscience-salving studio movies about war, genocide and corruption in African and Latin American former colonies, Newton I. Aduaka’s Ezra exhibits the cinematic rawness and emotional drive of a handful of similar Third World considerations. In limited if any theatrical release here, such films achieve near documentary immediacy through their very “defects” occasioned by budget and technical restrictions, lack of wide experience and postproduction expertise, and unfamiliarity with or disregard for Euramerican sensibilities. Hailed at festivals as fresh winds of have-not truth, only to fall by the wayside, these self-examinations are not forgotten but simply never known.
Humanitarian and African prize-winning -- notably the important Pan-African FESPACO Golden Stallion at Ouagadougou -- and selected for Cannes and Sundance, Ezra is filmed from the director’s co-written three-year script resulting from a proposal by French-German ARTE.
Recent films big and generally Hollywood splashy, as well as small often homegrown efforts, have used as starting point the concept of open truth and reconciliation proceedings, Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s post-apartheid “look the beast of the past in the eyes” prescription for national and individual healing through public confession.
Underage warriors in Latin America’s drug wars have become a minor staple of fiction and documentary coverage, but, lightly brushed in Uganda’s concurrent War/Dance, the phenomenon of child soldiers in Africa’s internecine wars is ground zero for this Nigeria-France-Austria production’s story strung on the thread of Sierra Leone’s 2002 Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Parallel with the unimaginable past which an extranational non-judgmental and –punitive panel attempts to coax out, there is a consideration of the effects not on victims but perpetrators, mere children themselves traumatized out of memory by their deeds.
Nigerian but film-educated in London and resident in Paris, Aduaka shows a corresponding breadth of vision in not pointing easy fingers. Men and parties are alternately vilified according to who is doing the rabble-rousing, but diplomacy is far away, so the heavies are assorted greedy local warlords and white arms dealers alongside hired mercenaries.
That year’s coup in the distance, before even the title all seems idyllic in July 1992, but moves quickly to nightmare. Six-year-old Ezra dawdles on a rural bridge but reaches Windsor Anglican Elementary School as the teacher chalks the composition assignment “Why I Love My Country” and his sister Omitcha notices ragtag insurgents burst into the courtyard. Casually killing a few and forcing others to accompany them, the insane adolescent troops return to a jungle diamond mine where PRF-People’s Revolutionary Front Brotherhood commandant Rufus sets in to brainwash to implant new identities in the little boys. Undergoing boot camp training, they are catechized to “bring our country to greatness,” to lay aside former ties for this new home and family and “justice, for which you will live and die.”
Then to the title present and ten years later at a local TRC hearing to be moved to the capital of Freetown, in which a troubled “fifteen- or sixteen-year old, I don’t remember” Ezra (Mamodou Turay Kamara) resists the panel’s General-turned-man-of-peace’s soothing “you’re going to be fine.” Mute Omitcha (Mariame N’Diaye) is asked to testify, and begins the series of flashbacks which form the brutal, thankfully not graphically bloody tale which comes back to a final today not colored with pie-in-the-sky sweetness and light but, rather, her brother’s sad response to a psychiatrist’s prompt about Santa’s sack for children.
Here and there, scenes from the public process jog back to the present setting and goal of healing admissions. As a unifying device, however, this does not provide selectivity, so the result wanders and confuses at times and needs editorial tightening. In the past relived in testimonies, Epiphany night of January 6, 1999, emerges as one of two key sequences, the night on which, led by Ezra and hopped up on injected “bobos,” a unit attacks villages to cut off hands as an anti-election “No hands, no votes.” Ezra does not recognize, and cannot acknowledge, his home village as one target nor realize that his angry orders have killed his parents and that one of his troops cut out his sister’s tongue.
The second, longer sequence stems from his adolescent fancy being caught by a sloe-eyed soldier in another group. Miriam (Mamusu Kallon) vows to continue her assassinated father’s fight against injustice, but this daughter of a Marxist journalist is more aware, more suspicious of fine words, than her illiterate lover. Her pregnancy is blessed by Omitcha, and with the feeling of family comes a questioning of Rufus, particularly when Ezra notes that leader’s “C’mon, let’s go do business” with the white amphetamine dealer who also sells weapons to the rival DPRA rebels who later capture and torture him. Following humiliating public demotion in rank, Ezra plans to flee a thousand miles to Lagos, Nigeria, with his biological family, but undisciplined crossfire between bandit-rebels and regular troops intervenes.
Irony lies in the Brotherhood “Love Conquers All” license plate and Bob Marley’s wailed “Conquer evil,” for in the mix conqueror and conquered are inseparable. Prospects for Ezra, his lost-childhood companions, the nation and the continent are faint indeed: “The next generation will suffer as a result,” though this phrase and its context summary of the issue would better have been worked into dramatic dialogue rather than printed end titles. Yet Ezra moves, and is smart enough not to endorse empty enthusiasms or slogans.
(Released by California Newsreel; not rated by MPAA.)