No sugarcoating it: “Ezra” is a difficult film to watch. It isn’t particularly graphic or gory, but its dramatization of children being kidnapped and forced into fighting–or, really, raping and pillaging–by rebel armies in Sierra Leone is extremely upsetting, and all the more terrifying for alluding to greater and more incomprehensible crimes occurring in reality. As directed by Nigerian filmmaker Newton I. Aduaka, “Ezra” is often messy and awkwardly told, but even its amateurishness lends a sort of raw power to its harrowing depiction of dehumanization, exploitation, senseless violence, and the post-conflict attempts at “Truth and Reconciliation” as promoted by the series of human rights hearings set up to make some sort of sense of the devastation of a decade-long civil war.
As with last year’s “Bamako,” “Ezra” sifts through the ruins of Africa’s recent, tumultuous history by way of a judicial process, even if, as Richard Grant’s American judge continually reminds the title character and the audience, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission trial he presides over is essentially a therapeutic and non-punitive one. Like so many other young men, Ezra (Mamodou Turay Kamara) was only a child when abducted from his school in the early Nineties and then brainwashed and trained by antigovernment rebels, obedience his only means of survival; the film considers the Commission’s objective to somehow reintegrate thousands of Ezras back into the society they destroyed warily up until its sober denouement. The stated goal of the Commission — of healing through an airing of people’s individual stories, no matter how disagreeable, so as to bring about an “act of closure” and the “beginning of hope” — is challenged by a victim/victimizer like Ezra himself, who remains defiant in the face of sympathetic authority and still openly in thrall of the rebels’ militaristic ideology.
Flashbacks tell Ezra’s woeful tale: schooled under the menacing watch of a warlord; drugged with methamphetamines; responsible for the bombing of his own parents’ house; reunited with sister Omitcha (Mariame N’Diaye), whose tongue was cut out by one of the rebels; thwarted while on the run with his pregnant lover, Miriam (Mamusu), another kidnapped soldier, and tortured by a rival rebel faction; caught in a deadly crossfire while on the route to escape from Freetown.
While “Ezra” effectively evokes unimaginable despair and suffering, it also doesn’t clearly enough explicate the context in which Sierra Leone was being carved up by roving gangs (some background is provided about British soldiers, “blood diamonds,” and the corrupt rebels’ fight against government corruption, but not in any way that provides even a partial picture of the situation) also, in the script, by Aduaka and Alain-Michel Blanc, Ezra fails to emerge throughout the course of the nightmare as a complete character, a problem exacerbated by Karama’s wooden performance. This might, however, be intentional: Ezra’s repression of his role in various slaughters, including of his family, is only punctured at the film’s very end, when his culpability finally becomes self-apparent. “Ezra” is testament to a person reduced to a thing having to once again be born as a human, a painful process resistant to any demands for a smooth or easy transition.