Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” is getting a lot of press these days. With its premieres at Venice, Telluride, and Toronto, and its release on Netflix last week, “Beasts” has broken new ground. As Artistic Director of the Toronto International Film Festival Cameron Bailey said from the stage of the North American Premiere in Toronto: “That is the first time that we have thanked Netflix.” Reviews from Variety to The Guardian almost universally laud the “uncompromising,” “disturbing,” “muscular,” “near-mythic,” and in equal measures “horrific” and “beautiful” nature of Fukunaga’s filmmaking. And these ascriptions all prove true. But for all the praise, there seems to be much left unsaid about just what this filmic confrontation with the uncomfortable actually tells us about these children-turned-killers and the nature of war.
For many, the unflinching violence and unrelenting horror of seeing young boys transformed into brutal, mindless soldiers in the midst of a seemingly pointless war would be enough to cause discomfort. But leaving the theatre after that premiere in Toronto (for most it will be turning off their iPads or TV screens), what stuck me most was the lack of discomfort, was just how comfortable we all in fact seemed to be with the violence we had just witnessed, more specifically the violence we all seemed to expect of these specifically African men. The film was, indeed, so consistent with deeply rooted imperial imaginations of the nature of conflict in Africa that it did little more than confirm our unspoken beliefs, allow us to feel communally horrified, and then walk out (or switch off) and forget.
The story begins predictably enough, on sounds and images of a group of smiling, agile, musically talented, and ingenious African children. Our narrator, Agu, is presented as an average boy. Although school has been suspended due to a nameless war, he spends his days inventing low cost games with his friends; fighting with his siblings; admiring his father, a teacher turned refugee coordinator; and reading with his mother. War looms in the background, with ominous radio announcements, roadblocks and peacekeepers, and floods of refugees telling us that something is coming to disturb the peace of this small village. The conflict intervenes into young Agu’s life suddenly. Swift and brutal circumstances rip Agu from his family and force him to run. He is left alone and bewildered in unfamiliar forests, which is where he encounters a ragtag band of rebels.
The entrance of the rebel Commandant, played by a “muscular” Idris Elba, is almost comical. In fact, sitting in the audience in the Ryerson theatre at the Toronto premiere, I seem to recall Elba’s appearance on screen inspiring laughter, even cheers. His immense, bare-chested body parted a sea of nameless, colourfully adorned young rebels, moving in to fill the frame, whose low angle gave the perspective of a child encountering a mythic beast. Although there are momentary glimpses throughout the film of a potentially deeper character study, Elba’s performance is rarely allowed to go beyond this initial caricature. This is a Commandant for the Kony2012 generation.
The film, unlike Uzodinma Iweala’s acclaimed novel of the same title on which it is based, approaches its material in a linear, almost procedural manner, taking its structural shape from the canon of slave narratives. In many ways, the proliferating accounts of child soldiers have taken the place that slave narratives used to occupy, though seemingly without the explicit abolitionist intention. Fukunaga demonstrates great narrative restraint, keeping his lens intently focused on the minute details and developmental stages of Agu’s transformation, and only hinting at the large socio-political and international forces that might be at play.
Stylistically, the film is seductive and undeniably engrossing: sweeping saturated landscapes, densely elemental forests, masterly use of light and shadows, and frames filled with carefully crafted symbolism. The politics of the belly, an expression coined by Cameroonians (“la politique du ventre”) and popularized by scholar Jean-Francois Bayart for describing African politics as consumption, appears in every inch of the script, of daily routines, and of the wider political landscape – IT’S OUR TURN TO EAT declares a banner hung on the side of a building in a newly captured town. Fukunaga’s influences are clear and many: the hazy, almost hallucinatory, atmosphere of Apocalypse Now”; the masculine construction of violent comradery in “Full Metal Jacket;” the boy, Antoine, addressing his crimes to the camera and, in the end, running out to the sea, for a potential return to innocence or a final end – we are not quite sure – in “400 Blows.” And yet, for “Beasts,” the lack of specificity and tendency to shy away from ambiguities leaves these resonances a bit hollow, more cinematic conceits than illuminating allusions.”
For “Beasts,” Africa is a Country (shout out to the exemplary and thoughtfully curated africasacountry.com). The film, taking its cue from the novel, does not specify in which country the narrative takes place beyond a vague “West African” referent (though nods to the conflicts in Sierra Leone and Liberia can certainly be detected with a careful eye). The film was shot on location in Ghana, a country without a history of such violent civil conflicts, thought not without civil strife, and indeed a country that supplies a great number of peacekeepers across the region, as audience member at the Toronto premiere, Canadian Lieutenant-General and Force Commander for the UN mission in Rwanda, Romeo Dallaire pointed out. This approach has its advantages – avoiding the complex historical and geo-political minefields of actual, often on-going conflicts and allowing space for a more universal and personal exploration. An argument could be made, though the film by no means goes this far, that the practice of child soldiers is one that cuts across national borders and reorders both families and nations in ways that need to be understood more transnationally. But denuding the film of a specific setting also risks singularizing the African story in ways Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has warned us against. In “Beasts,” the imperial myth that dichotomized Africans as either ruthless savages or noble savages, as animalistically amoral or purely innocent until tainted by the modern world, seems alive and well.
The only country mentioned by name in the film is Nigeria, with a Nigerian peacekeeper accepting to buy the empty “imagination TV” invented by Agu and his friends (a not-so-subtle jab at the stereotyped consumerism of Nigerians). This inclusion stands out, perhaps serving as a rebuttal to those who believed Iweala’s book was based on, or at least heavily informed by, the Biafra war of secession in Nigeria from 1967-70. This may have been a pragmatic choice, given the pushback faced by director Biyi Bandele from Nigerian censors when trying to release his adaptation of Adichie’s Biafra set epic, “Half of a Yellow Sun,” in 2013 (a story which similarly includes the journey of a young boy turned rebel soldier, though the film cuts out most of Ugwu’s fascinating progression from domestic servant to unwitting rebel soldier to writer of the revolution).
I can only add to the universal accolades heaped on Abraham Attah for his embodiment of the character of Agu. His performance subtly moves from bewilderment to violent but still childlike tantrums and triumphs, and finally to an almost contradictory desensitized despair. And yet, how good he is provides a bit of a sting, revealing how much better the film around him could have been. For a film without a country, without a specific context from which to derive meaning, the viewer needed to be taken inside the psychological journey of this child, who himself remains only vaguely aware of the more complex historical and political contingencies unfolding around him. With such a rich body of literature around the experiences of child soldiers in Africa, and even the more personal and haunting studies of the subject matter in films like Kim Nguyen’s 2012 “Rebelle,” it is a shame that Fukunaga limited what could have been a more acute psychological exploration in favour of a structure geared more towards political thriller, particularly in light of the intensely, almost tactilely, perspectival approach of Iweala’s novel. While what Fukunaga shows us is certainly horrific, he turns his camera away from the more deeply psychological traumas that Iweala will not let us avoid on the page. In the film, the sexual violence experienced by, and wrought by, these child soldiers is hinted at or seen in glimpses. In the novel, we have to touch it, to smell it, to feel it, to live with it.
In many ways, the potential filmic exploration I am describing has already been done. Although arguably not as technically masterful, Newton Aduaka’s 2007 film “Ezra” covers much of the same ground as “Beasts,” following the life of a child soldier in an unnamed country, though the background of the conflict in Sierra Leone is here made much more apparent. But for Aduaka, this history is not a linear one, from idyllic childhood to horrific alienation and finally to return and possible salvation. For Aduaka, the trauma of the experiences of child soldiers is one that reaches back and forward in time; that radiates out to families and social networks who are at times victims, at others accomplices, but always witnesses; and that repeats and resurfaces in courtrooms, in Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, and in reintegration programs. While some might find Aduaka’s use of English problematic and his complicated chronological structure off-putting, his intent is clear: to demonstrate the disruption to time and memory itself caused by the deep, and widely shared trauma of violent conflict. Iweala’s narrative approaches the impact of trauma on memory and linearity in much the same way, a structural choice Fukunaga unfortunately eschewed in his adaptation.
The film ends with Agu and several of his fellow soldiers being taken into a rehabilitation camp. This has become a common tactic in Hollywood treatments of such conflicts, and a deeply problematic one. The rehabilitation camp as site of redemption or salvation seems to serve more to soothe a foreign audience that wants to leave the horrors they’ve witnessed in the voyeuristic spaces of the cinema than to prompt any deeper examination of the immense trauma, continuing violence, and complex local responses to the multiple difficulties of displacement, reintegration, and reconfiguration of social life in a post-conflict society.
It is not so much the graphic violence and horrific reality of children being turned into killing machines that make “Beasts of No Nation” difficult to watch, but the lack of space given to looking behind, beneath, and beyond this violence. In the end, “Beasts of No Nation” gives us little more than war porn. Beautifully shot and skilfully crafted war porn, but war porn nonetheless.
Dr. Julie MacArthur is an Assistant Professor of African History at the University of Toronto. She holds a PhD in African history from the University of Cambridge and has taught African history and culture at universities across Canada, the UK and eastern Africa. Her first book on mapping, ethnic identity, and dissent in colonial Kenya is forthcoming with Ohio University Press in Spring 2016, and she is currently working on two new book projects: one on mapping decolonization, sovereignty and border conflicts in eastern Africa and the other on the trial of the infamous Mau Mau rebel Field Marshal Dedan Kimathi. She has also worked extensively in the field of African cinema, both as a curator and an academic. She has worked as a programming associate with the Toronto International Film Festival and Film Africa in London as well as serving as the Director of the Cambridge African Film Festival for several years. She previously served as the Director of Content Acquisition for Buni.TV, an online platform for the distribution of African content, and she regularly curates film programmes and participates in film forums and festivals across the world.