Friday, October 30, 2015

On the very small screen: BEASTS OF NO NATION (2015)

Cary Joji Fukunaga's movie has been touted as Netflix's first feature film, but the rental and streaming superpower only bought into the project after it had been shot, paying $12,000,000 for distribution rights concurrent with its streaming debut for subscribers. Since few theaters wanted to do Netflix any favors by actually exhibiting the film, I ended up watching it on my trusty e-reader's 7" screen. The picture quality is good, but some urban and jungle scenes probably need a bigger screen to fully breathe. Since it has an intimate focus, the travails of one boy, despite a potentially epic setting, Beasts of No Nation is a fairly device-friendly picture, but that same narrow focus probably limits whatever impact Fukunaga, who adapted Uzodinma Iweala's novel as well as directing, may have intended for it.

The overall feeling is like Apocalypse Now as a boy's adventure film, or if you prefer, a boy's adventure story in the manner of Apocalypse Now. The boy is Agu, (Abraham Attah), a pre-teen citizen of an unnamed African country. Agu is a bit of a rascal; he and his friends are first seen trying to sell an "Imagination TV," i.e., a hollow console behind which they perform in various genres as one boy changes the theoretical channels. It's a state-of-the-art device; call up the 3-D channel and one boy will dive through the empty picture window, right at you! The punch line comes unexpectedly some time later, when we learn whose TV has been dismembered for this purpose. This early comedy is meant to make the radical change in tone more abrupt and stark.

The enemy is coming. They have a name, but the fact is, there are lots of enemies, lots of militias with a bewildering variety of initials. Is it the People's Front of Judea or the Judean People's Front? None of them are taking prisoners, however, and when one particular militia comes to town Agu's childhood, poor but in some ways idyllic, comes to a violent end. The family is broken up, mother ferried out of town with the youngest child, but while Agu was meant to go along he ends up with his father and brother, both of whom are mowed down by the occupying militia. In the confusion Agu escapes into the jungle, where his chances look bleak.

Agu is recruited into another militia, led by the charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba). He has a way with child soldiers and a way with soldiers in general; we see him lead his men to take a well-guarded bridge with little more than his force of personality. Afterward, he orders Agu to kill his first man, telling him that the sobbing wretch at his feet is one of those who massacred his family. It's unclear whether Agu believes this or whether he just wants to make his pathetic victim shut up. His new pal Strika, hardly older than he, joins in the slaughter as the Commandant watches approvingly.


To Agu the Commandant may look like a conqueror in his own right, but he answers to higher powers, to his own chagrin. After suffering repeated humiliations when summoned by his supreme commander, the Commandant decides to strike out on his own, taking his militia with him, but this proves a foolhardy. In time his spell over Agu and the others is broken, but where can they go from there?...


Abraham Attah makes an impressive debut as Agu, while Idris Elba is impressive as ever as the Commandant. They could be a modern Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, if the old pirate had fed his boy drugs and demanded sex from him. Some see the Commandant as a new Kurtz, somewhere close to the original heart of darkness of Joseph Conrad's story, but a Kurtz less easily eliminated. Beasts of No Nation may well leave audiences wondering whether "Exterminate all the brutes" isn't the right idea, though that probably isn't the response Fukunaga was hoping for. It really depends on whether he intended the film as a consciousness-raising expose of the wars still ravaging Africa, or as an atrocity exhibition. The apparently deliberate vagueness about its setting subverts any educational purpose Fukunaga may have had. Someone watching this film should want to know why these things are happening, and there really can't be even a hope for a solution unless we have such an understanding. Why are all these groups fighting each other? The only hints we get are the sight of the international businessmen waiting on the Commandant's boss and the sinister, authentic slogan occasionally seen and heard: "It's Our Turn to Eat." Politics in Africa seems to be a zero-sum game of tribes and factions for whom war is a natural extension. But it doesn't take much research to learn that there's more in play than that, and any film set in modern Africa, whatever its source, owes it to its audience to show that something more is going on than generic African savagery. I'm sure Fukunaga didn't mean it this way, but I wouldn't be surprised to see Beasts condemned as a racist film, and the writer-director has himself to blame for not the providing the political context that would refute any essentialist inferences audiences might draw. Fidelity to art may limit Fukunaga's options, since the novel requires us to see everything from a small boy's limited perspective. But the director doesn't help his case with a rather generic approach to war and its horrors. The experience of a child soldier is novelty enough to justify the film, but when the child soldier re-enacts a scene from All Quiet on the Western Front late in the picture some of the necessary novelty is diluted by movie memories. Nor is the ending as inspiring or inflammatory as it could be; instead, the film glides to a gradual stop with a promise that Agu can learn to be a boy again and play like other boys in the surf. Everything's okay, then, if he's going to be all right. There's something inexcusably Hollywood about that, as if the survival of the individual excuses the general horror. By now, though, I think I'm guilty of special pleading against the film. I should make it clear that Beasts of No Nation is a fine, often alarming, sometimes horrific film that should have some impact on viewers, and I recommend that people see it.  It ought to make people want to know why such things as they see on screen have happened in Africa, but it will give them very few answers, and by the time it's over audiences' aroused curiosity may have dimmed or died -- and if so, that's a failure.

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