Despite my lack of an appetite for yet another film about child soldiers within the African continent (“the danger of a single story”), “Beasts of No Nation” is probably going to be an awards season contender, given all the pre-release hype around it, leading up to its release next month (unless it’s surprisingly weak, which I don’t expect, given the talent involved and the source material).
Netflix picked up “Beast of No Nation” earlier this year, after a bidding war that ended with the streaming platform paying a reported hefty $12 million for rights to release it.
“Beasts of No Nation” is based on the highly acclaimed novel by Nigerian author Uzodinma Iweala, bringing to life the gripping tale of Agu, a child soldier torn from his family to fight in the civil war of an unnamed African country. Newcomer Abraham Attah stars as Agu, while Elba plays the role of Commandant, a warlord who takes in Agu and instructs him in the ways of war.
With its release, I thought I’d revisit a previous “African child soldier” feature film which was released 3 years ago to critical acclaim (including an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film that year), and which is available on home video platforms.
That film is 2012’s “War Witch” (also known as “Rebelle”).
Rarely does war look so beautiful on film. I feel somewhat guilty saying that given the unspeakable acts of physical and mental torment the young protagonist in “War Witch” endures throughout its roughly 90-minute running time.
But director Kim Nguyen’s dream-like visual aesthetic captivates; and when combined with the laconically-told narrative, we could say, in some way, collectively, they help soften the otherwise emotionally devastating blow any thinking/feeling member of the audience would experience.
Not that the material isn’t harrowing. It certainly is; although director Nguyen shields us from the worst a child in young Komona’s predicament would likely face in real life.
It may not have even been intentional, and this isn’t necessarily a negative or positive (just an observation by one person), but it’s hard not to succumb to the odd serenity the painterly images and silences create.
It’s like a piece of hell in heaven.
Toss in the wonderfully naturalistic performances (from many non-professional actors, notably the film’s lead, Rachel Mwanza) and you’ve got a picture that some will likely classify as magical realism, with actual magic – sorcery, or in this specific case witchcraft being of significance to the plot, hence the title. Although it’s more like myth and superstition than anything real.
At times of desperation, especially at times of war, when right at the forefront of it, and death is a constant reminder of itself, it’s not entirely irrational to embrace notions one might ordinarily dismiss.
The film follows 12 year old Komona on a 3 year journey, starting with her kidnapping by rebels from the unnamed village in the unnamed African country in which she and her family live, to becoming a child soldier. She’s branded a witch by the rebel leader after she survives an ambush that left the rest of the unit she was dispatched with, dead, and becomes something of a treasure to the leader, who believes she possesses magical powers he can exploit for his own protection. She eventually is able to escape from the camp with an older albino soldier who pledges his love for her, and seeks her hand in marriage; and, for the very first time, albeit for a short period of time, she experiences the simple joys of living a somewhat peaceful existence, which, unfortunately, does not lasts, and she’s soon thrust back into the madness she once fled.
I was reminded of the Mexican drama Miss Bala (2012), which itself featured another kind of war as its backdrop, with a young female protagonist thrust into a world of organized chaos, which she had little control over, just as little Komona (her parents now dead, and who she sees in spirit form in her waking dreams and nightmares; a recurring motif that also includes the ghosts of men she kills, informing her evolution) is shuffled around by others (men primarily), much of the action happening outside of her, although we are privy to her internal thoughts – a running voice-over that reveals the story behind those dead eyes.
The significant difference between the two films being that Komona, after eventually deciding that she’d endured enough suffering, finally decides to act – taking great risk in plotting revenge and final escape, reclaiming her freedom on her own terms.
It’s a sad, tragic tale of struggle and perseverance in the face of the kind of uncertainty that always has death as one of its potential outcomes – all of them bleak. But for some in this predicament, death may actually be desired.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that I’m almost always impulsively weary of films like this, especially when produced by filmmakers who aren’t of the particular region the film and its story are set; call it a knee-jerk reaction inspired by similar past films made under similar circumstances that have disappointed; but also recalling again Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie’s “the danger of a single story.”
While it’s noteworthy to say that there isn’t the usual white American/European protagonist who rides in on his/her white horse, and make things all better, one can’t help but notice long-standing trends in cinema of depictions by westerners of Africans in Africa, dominated by narrow portrayals of Africans as either starving, helpless, hapless victims, or as post-colonial *savages*. Those terribly incomplete depictions have grown trite and tiresome, while failing to delve into the full complexities beneath the 2-dimensional surfaces we are often bombarded with.
It also doesn’t encourage when the story is set in continental Africa but fails to specify where exactly – country, city, etc – rather just “somewhere in Africa,” reinforcing the notion that Africa really is a country, and not a continent made up of individual countries. And while there might be some cross-border cultural bleeding, each exists as its own separate autonomous state with varied languages, customs, traditions, etc.
Although given that the child soldiers in “War Witch” are used as manual labor to mine a mineral called coltan, that piece of information helps narrow the list of potential countries in this case to 2 or 3, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) being the most likely, since, by official accounts, about 80% of the world’s supply of coltan comes from the DRC, and it is believed that the exporting of coltan from the DRC to the European and American electronics companies that make those ubiquitous devices known as cell phones, has helped finance recent conflict in the nation, which has killed millions of people (the film was shot in the DRC by the way, but we aren’t privy to location information within the narrative).
The filmmaker likely opted to keep the country nameless to avoid any potential political backlash; however an immediate negative reaction to films like this, no matter how well-produced, should in turn be understandable.
Not that any of this completely ruined my experience watching the film; it’s a picturesque, and even somewhat hypnotic, yet raw film, with strong acting and direction; but it’s touches like what I just described that are common enough, and complained about enough that I’d think, at this juncture, any filmmaker taking on the task of telling stories set in any part of the African continent, would be fully aware, and avoid these *traps*.
“War Witch” is said to have been inspired by a real story that took place in Burma; director Nguyen worked on the film for 10 years, demonstrating a commitment to telling this particular story.
In the end, despite some irksome choices, the film is a poignant work, filled with strong, captivating images, and wonderfully naturalistic performances (especially from star Rachel Mwanza, who is in practically every scene, and definitely held my attention throughout, and who I’m looking forward to seeing in some other work, reminiscent of an even younger and just as dynamic Quvenzhane Wallis from “Beasts Of The Southern Wild”); I appreciated the effort by Nguyen to tell this specific story from a young girl’s perspective, which itself is refreshing, and distinguishes the film from other like titles.
Some moments in it will likely shock, or even enrage you for any number of reasons – whether the particular story it tells, or some of the choices the filmmaker makes; but overall, there’s enough good here that I recommend it.
Don’t be fooled by the action-driven trailer below; it’s a much quieter film than this shows. And it’s currently on Netflix; although only for another 8 days, as Netflix’s monthly purge of old films occurs. So watch it before it’s gone!