Beasts of No Nation (2015) (137 mins)
Director – Cary Joji Fukunaga
Starring – Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Ama K. Abebrese
Premise – A young boy in an unnamed African country is torn from his family and trained to be a soldier for war.
With the news that Amazon wants to branch out into Film by producing 16 films every year, Netflix’s first instant release, Beasts of No Nation, is going to prove to be a defining moment in the course of film history. Netflix, as they do with their own television series, release their products on a specific date, and globally, like a world premiere and DVD release at the same time, skipping over the importance of cinema with an impatience both satisfying yet also detrimental to the different stages of a film’s life, and audience’s enjoyment. Well, seeing as Beasts of No Nation, a film focusing on the capture, development and rehabilitation of a child soldier, is the first of its kind, it deserves attention not only for its production strategy, but also because its take on wartime horrors is just so authentically distressing to miss out on.
Filmed within the beautiful and lush forestry landscapes of Ghana, Beasts of No Nation importantly chooses never to locate the characters in a specific country, but instead uses their trials and tribulations to make sense of the larger notion of warfare that has, and still is, ravaging Africa. Based on Uzodinma Iweala’s book of the same name, the author being a native of Africa, and in particular Nigeria, chose to encapsulate the whole of Africa as suffering as one; a notion director Cary Fukunaga efficiently emphasises through the atrocities that have in a way ravaged every stage of human life, and made it hard to return to normality.
Beasts of No Nation is able to hold the title of most harrowing investigation of life as a child soldier because it offers a complete saga. Yes, it is purely an investigation of a child solder, but it does feel overly long, yet necessarily long because it gets to grip with a handful of stages within the child soldier development that it offers a hefty sort of truth that is hard to shake off with a film like this, long after the experience. It is essentially Blood Diamond’s focus on child soldier tutoring fleshed out into a feature film, and if you found Blood Diamond’s powerful depiction of child warfare hard to handle, then Beasts of No Nation will be like an enemy of horror watching The Exorcist for the first time.
Some scenes are just so shocking; it is beyond belief how we can live our lives whilst these atrocities happen elsewhere. Agu, the innocent protagonist who is separated from his family, suffers a mental transformation that can never be healed. His mental shift occurs at a specific moment, made important by Fukunaga, who tries to get to grips with how these boys can become such sadistic Beasts, and in actual fact, succeeds in encapsulating the moment. The film freezes and we become Agu for an instant, dealing with his change in mentality as he prepares himself to butcher a live man to death in front of everyone. What makes it worse is that the victim was bald, and for a child to witness his own degradation of sanity, as well as the degradation of his victim’s corpse, is disturbing stuff. But what really strikes us at the core is when Agu, now favoured by the Commandant, is brought into his hut and raped by his own leader. This is when Beasts of No Nation truly defines itself as a grim piece of reality that needs no words to describe its brutal relevance. From these powerful moments, Beasts of No Nation reveals itself as indispensable to the war genre because it doesn’t shy away from the difficult stuff that hardly get to see the light of day.
Those scenes are Beasts of No Nation at its most shocking, but its final scene featuring the Commandant is the film at its most skilful. The Commandant loses his whole clan after going on the run from his own faction and UN forces, and in doing so subjugates his tribe to a lack of nutrition, proper sheltering, ammunition or hope. When they slowly filter out of their campsite, we watch from the Commandant’s lonely eye and oh boy is it fantastically shot; potentially the best executed scene in film in 2015. The camera never moves from the Commandant’s distant viewpoint, imbuing Beasts of No Nation with a solemn hopelessness that plunges new depths when Agu, Elba’s favourite, abandons the Commandant and joins the other soldiers. It is the film’s most accomplished scene, one that emphasises the pointlessness of war and its damaging mental and physical effects. But most important to this scene is the hopelessness we feel for a man who in his introduction instilled unrestrained supremacy and intimidation over anything he comes up against.
Beasts of No Nation is made up of such powerful, affecting scenes that work as moments packaged together to reveal the psychological horrors of war. Because the film feels like scenes that are packaged together to get to the core of child warfare, my beliefs of it feeling desperately long are warranted because as a package it is not as strong as it is during its individual moments that do truly blow you away.
It is a film of two characters; the investigation of both a child soldier and his commandant who both have two very different journeys. Abraham Attah stars as Agu, and in Attah there is potential for the future unless he doesn’t get discarded along with other African actors after just one film. Attah makes us feel his desolation through his journey throughout the film, where we physically see the life sucked away from within him. His silence is the most crippling factor of his decline because it truly emphasises how his good-natured soul is vacuumed and then cemented with evil. Idris Elba though steals the show as the Commandant. Elba, after Luther, truly creates a multi-dimensional character that it is hard not to imagine this character existing somewhere in history. Elba is simply marvellous in his portrayal, as he dictates with an invincible aura, yet can also be a heart-breaking embodiment of hope and power dwindling to a mere artefact. The Commandant is the true protagonist of the film, because his decline is scandalous to behold and Elba’s performance even more sensational. Elba portrays the character with such humanity and balance that by the end, we actually feel his futility despite the savageries he influenced.
As the film reaches its culmination and period of rehabilitation for Agu, Beasts of No Nation’s effect is extraordinarily experienced. There is a short burst of hope at the end when Agu is found and sent to a missionary school by UN troops, but it can’t outdo the overwhelming atrocities these child soldiers endure, even if the film misses a large chunk in his rehabilitation. This simple sentiment shows just how harrowing an experience this film can be, and even more tormenting in how hard it is to forget.
Beasts of No Nation is not a piece of entertainment by any stretch of the imagination despite Attah and Elba’s striking performances, because its genuine understanding of war is a harrowing experience to witness.