Outside of its Oscar buzz and its status as the first original feature film to be distributed by Netflix, Cary Fukunaga’s “Beasts of No Nation” is drawing attention as a gruesome and realistic portrayal of the plight of child soldiers. The film is adapted from a novel of the same name by Uzodinma Iweala and follows young Agu, played by Abraham Attah, who is caught in the middle of his country’s civil war and forced to fight. Over the course of the film, Agu has to witness and carry out unspeakable acts to stay alive.
A preview screening of “Beasts of No Nation” was held at MoMA on Tuesday, October 6 and hosted by Trudie Styler, Sting and James Schamus, who all have a history of social activism, with a focus on the real-life crisis of the kidnapping of children to fight as soldiers from which the film draws its premise. Director Cary Fukunaga appeared after the film to discuss the making of the drama and the importance of its subject matter. Also in attendance was Attah, the young Ghanian actor who makes his bold screen debut in the role.
According to Fukunaga, he was already interested in making a movie about child soldiers when a friend gifted him a copy of Iweala’s novel. “I had already been playing around with the subject, trying to figure out how to make a movie about specifically the war in Sierra Leone,” he said, “and this book cut to the heart of it by finding the voice of this young soldier, and it gripped me pretty quickly.” By chance, he carried his copy of the book into a meeting about his first film, “Sin Nombre,” which caught an executive’s attention. “One of the executives at Focus said, ‘I love that book, I want to make it into a movie,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, let’s do that.'”
Attah has attracted a lot of attention not only for his harrowing performance, but also for the fact that he is making his debut as an actor, discovered by Harrison Nesbit through an extensive casting search in Ghana. When he was initially approached, he had no idea he was being scouted for a film. “It was on Friday and I was in school playing football with my friends, and a white man, Harrison, was watching us play football. He told us to come for an audition…we thought it was for a football team.” The Ghanian teenager looked comfortable in the spotlight despite the fact that he had never left his home before the film started shooting.
Shooting in Ghana provided its own set of challenges, including one memorable moment with the local crew. “After the United States beat Ghana in the World Cup, nobody from Ghana showed up for work. So that was a tough day,” said the director. However, some of his problems on set were much more severe than that, including malaria, bad weather and an injury that forced Fukanaga to be his own cinematographer and camera operator. “Our camera operator got injured the first day of shooting. He pulled his hamstring first day, first set up, take two, and from then out any time the camera moved I had to operate the camera. And there was a lot of movement in the movie.”
Elba was also a formidable presence on set as the only professional actor, helping to whip the cast and crew into shape. Attah admitted that he was intimidated by his on-screen partner at first. “As I started working with him I was afraid with him,” he said. “But sometimes he’d play football with us, and it became normal for me to work with him.”
Beasts of No Nation opens in select theaters and hits Netflix on October 16.