Recently watched BEASTS OF NO NATION, a Netflix original film adapted and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga and based on the book by Uzodinma Iweala. The film stars Idris Elba, one of my favorite actors going back to the first time I saw him in the British vampire series ULTRAVIOLET, and Abraham Attah, who plays Agu, the main character. Elba does an amazing job as the Commandant, but Attah, wow, that kid can act. I loved the film.
The story begins with a family living in a village in an unnamed African country. The village is in a buffer zone protected by the Nigerians during a civil war. Agu is a clever boy making his way, while his father, a local school teacher, works hard to help the refugees pouring into the area.
When one side of the conflict enters the buffer zone, the Nigerians leave the village helpless. Agu’s mother and younger siblings are able to flee to the Capital, but Agu remains in the village with his father, older brother and grandfather. Government troops enter the village and slaughter the inhabitants, believing them rebels, and Agu flees into the jungle.
Agu is captured by a battalion of rebels led by the Commandant, who indoctrinates him and teaches him to fight. He becomes a child soldier, forced to kill.
The film is amazing. The characters come across as flesh and blood people, and their plight is heartbreaking. The politics surrounding the war seem confusing, but that’s because they are, they’re essentially meaningless to Agu. Just groups with acronyms that believe it’s “their turn to eat,” their chance to run things. His reality is limited to eating when he can, fighting when he must, and what the Commandant tells him is reality.
The life of the guerillas is one of hardship, filled with endless marching, fighting, rape and genocide. They wear fantastical uniforms and function something like a cross between a professional army and a cult.
Familiar tropes appear in the film, such as an aid worker driving into a refugee camp surrounded by cheering children looking for a treat, or a UN convoy passing an army of savage-looking guerillas. But the tropes are reversed, they seem strange and out of place, as we’re seeing them from Agu’s point of view.
By the end, we realize the Commandant is using the soldiers, and the rebel government is using the Commandant. The rebels need to commit genocide to win, but the more successful they are, the more they need to please the world community, which means jettisoning the Commandant and potentially leaving the soldiers liable for war crimes.
Gradually, Agu realizes there’s no noble cause, no father figure in the ruthless Commandant, and no justice and revenge–only endless atrocity, cruelty, hardship and political maneuvering by the powerful to line their pockets. After he leaves the war, he realizes his childhood is gone, and doesn’t know if he can even rejoin humanity.
This is a film simple and powerful in its storytelling, brutal in its violence and realism, and moving in its depiction of children used as soldiers in a horrifying civil war.