With limited theatrical release for reasons unrelated to its consideration purely as film, Beasts of No Nation is Netflix’ first big-screen try. That it is a notable indictment of conflict in former African colonies, of war anywhere anytime, and that it centers on young people, is not a surprise given its maker. Cary Joji Fukunaga adapted Nigerian-American Dr. Uzodinma Iweala’s ten-year-old novel, directed, co-produced, wound up replacing the original injured cinematographer, and came down with malaria during the thirty-five-day monsoon-season shoot in Ghana.
Like Ezra, Heart of Fire and War Witch, this film brings the phenomenon of the world’s estimated quarter-of-a-million underage soldiers to life way beyond the occasional media item. Real ex-combatants were cast and/or consulted, and while no West African nation is specified, in any case ramifications extend to the Middle East and other Third World battlegrounds.
The tale opens to the Krio voices of children at play and, in frames that belie what has gone before, closes a hundred thirty-seven minutes later on the victims of adult ills frolicking in the purifying rebirth of ocean surf. The intervening time details the loss of innocence, and once childhood is broken and stolen, it and paradise cannot be regained.
Technique reinforces this trajectory. The camera is positioned low, the world surveyed from the height of the smallest of the boys, Agu, making teens and grown-ups look bigger and taller, especially the already outsized Commandant. Long shots caress side-lit faces, most especially of that boy protagonist, his eyes taking it all in, pained, uncomprehending but obedient, his voiceovers questioning.
Though the particular multi-faceted struggle displays the usual contending rote slogans of such underreported and unreal-to-outsiders bloodbaths, and though there are killings galore and substances smoked and snorted, the whole is restrained, at times leisurely, and there is relatively little of the splatter current films revel in. As well, and contrary to spectacular reportage, the rebels take no females as wives or sex slaves, and there is in fact only the briefest whiff of sodomy.
Agu’s (first-timer Abraham Attah) mischievous, Christian religious, idyllic family life is brutally truncated by government troops who defy UN peacekeepers by entering the town, dispersing and slaughtering. Fleeing into the jungle, he is captured by ragtag adolescent and child rebels under the towering Commandant (co-producer Idris Elba, a Londoner of African parentage). Befriended by mute equally young Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye), he undergoes arduous physical initiation, moves up the informal ladder to become an automatic rifle-carrying soldier and the leader’s de facto personal attendant, is goaded into his first kill with a machete and, longing for his mother, experiences the horror! the horror!
The lack of moralizing or posturing in this adaptation makes it all the more forceful. Politics’ alphabet soup of parties and armed groups, PPP, NDF, NRC, is purposely muddled; in mufti or uniforms higher-ups’ platitudes fail to mask shortsighted personal ambitions; and in emergency situations even poor village taxi drivers are out for the money. Weapons fire is rendered more frightening because mostly heard instead of imaged through its results, and thus the total effect is allowed to indict for itself, most eloquently so.
(Released by Netflix and not rated by MPAA.)