Abraham Attah as Agu in Netflix Beasts of No Nation. Image courtesy of Netflix
The devastating consequences of war on children in African countries are at the center of Beasts of No Nation, Netflix first exclusive feature film. Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel, this is a film about the harsh realities of war and the transformation of a young innocent boy into a vicious killer.
Written and directed by Cary Fukunaga of True Detective-fame, Beast of No Nation takes viewers on a harrowing journey of war through the eyes of a child soldier, Agu.
The story of Agu, a 12- year- old boy played by newcomer Abraham Attah, starts on a happy note. With a happy family: mother, father, brother and sister, Agu was a happy child. Like many children of his age, he is playful and sometimes incorrigibly mischievous. He pranks his brother and burps at the dinner table. ” I am a good boy from a good family’ Agu says.
Agu’s joyful existence with his family abruptly ends when government troupes hunting down rebels invaded and destroyed his village. During the raid, Agu’s family is killed. The senseless killing of his family marked a sharp twist of fate for a child who was once filled with enormous hopes and dreams.
After the murdering of his family and the destruction of his village, Agu flees the village and escapes into the forest. There, he is captured and turned into a child soldier. He becomes a part of a battalion of child soldiers, whose only survival depends on killing and committing brutal atrocities.
At the head of the rebel group is Commandant, a terrifying warlord exceptionally played by Idris Elba of Prometheus, Wire, Mandela, and Luther fame. Commandant is an arrogant, terrifying and heartless character. From the moment he appears on screen from a haze of narcotic smoke and eyes hidden behind dark aviator sunglasses, it was clear that this is a man without empathy for anyone.
Commandant’s only concern is glory for his cause. It does not matter whose ox is gored in the actualization of his ill will. With a swagger nurtured by pomposity, Commandant is vicious and intriguingly gruesome throughout the movie.
Under the tutelage of Commandant, Agu becomes one of the tools for the actualization of the rebel cause. His acceptance of a cruel existence means he must become one of the Beasts: He must killer to survive. His first killing was particularly gruesome. Blood splatter, filling the camera as the dull thump of a machete penetrates the skull of a driver even as the man begged for his life. Agu was merciless.
Agu’s killing of the driver marks a major twist in Beasts of No Nation. From a good boy from a good family, Agu becomes a killer who murders without compunction. In a scene from the film, Agu shoots and kills a woman after hallucinating that the captive could be his mother. Agu’s justification for killing the woman, in this rather thought provoking scene, was to prevent her from being raped.
Commandant taught Agu well. A menacing and charismatic leader with outstanding ability to brainwash his followers, Commandant is terrifyingly brilliant. Throughout the film, he cleverly manipulates his followers using intriguing stories that elevate him to the status of the spiritual head in some instance. The extent of his power is evident in one of the scenes where he mentally prepares his soldiers for war. In a ritual comprising of war dance and charming, he whips up his soldiers into a savage frenzy with the obsession to kill.
Beyond his charming attributes, drugs help Commandant incite his soldiers into a killing fury. Drugs like ‘brown brown’, a mixture of cocaine and gun powder are given to the child soldiers as Commandant turns them into killing machines. In one scene where the young soldiers prepare for war, Agu goes into a trance after a bout of ‘brown brown’. Everything around him suddenly become esoteric. The lush green grass turns pink and surrounding him are ghostly warriors in full war regalia and fearsome masks.
Beasts of No Nation is not a movie about winners or losers but those who are devastated by the consequences of war. Agu’s transformation from a joyful young boy to a killer is told with the main objective of highlighting the psychological and physical impact of war not just on children but also women and all those engaged in the killing of other human beings.
Fukunaga brilliance behind the camera makes Beasts of No Nation a compelling movie. Shot in the humid jungles of Ghana, Fukunaga explores different camera angles and close up shot to bare the pains of war. With tight shots, Agu’s transformation from horrors of witnessing his parents killed, to his resignation and final acceptance of his fate is told with shocking effects.
Agu’s story is absolutely distressing and discomforting to watch: It is a narrative filled with childhood innocence and the calamities of war especially on children. Agu’s descent from an innocent child to a cold-blooded killer is the story of many children in war zones, especially African countries. Children are kidnapped and turned into child soldiers. From Rwanda to Sudan and Congo, the indoctrination of children as killers is prevalent.
Beasts of No Nation is not just a revealing movie about child soldier and the gruesome effects of war but also a condemnation of the international community. In one of the scenes, a United Nations van drives by as rebel soldiers descend on a village with murderous intentions. Not once did the United Nations soldiers intervene or tried to stop what ends in a massacre. In a reminder of Hotel Rwanda, the United Nations soldiers watch as innocent people are killed.
Beasts of No Nation is not the story for the faint hearted. From the beginning to the end, Fukunaga presents a harrowing experience of war that is not often discussed. The film is a reminder of the commonality of what happens in rebel groups and wars that recruit and indoctrinate children to become fighters and killers. Painfully, the process from recruitment to becoming soldiers and ardent killers takes less than two hours. The fact that the story is situated in an unknown African country gives credence to a common thread that runs across rebel war zones: the indoctrination of children into killing soldiers.
Elba’s Commandant explicates the fate of rebel leaders. Although Commandant’s control of his army of miscreants is very effective, it did not last. A broken and bitter man, Commandant’s Messianic relevance and charismatic speech diminishes to the ranting of a mad man. In the end, he is abandoned by his men who subsequently surrender to UN peacekeepers.
Devastating as the Beasts of No Nation is, it carries the message of hope. Agu is not a lost cause. Although he grows into a killer without empathy for others, there is humanness deep within him. His friendship and relationship with Strika, another child soldier is an excavation of the love deep within Agu that had been buried by hatred and viciousness. For those who are quick to judge, Agu is direct and explicit: “You will think that I am some sort of beast or devil,” he says, “but I also have a mother, father, brother, and sister once. They loved me.” Yes, they did.
Beasts of No Nation – A Netflix Original Film/Youtube