I do not mean to sound creepy, but I find the concept of child soldiers rather interesting. It says a lot about the pressure of cultural masculinity and the glorification of war. Growing up we, are often forced into the role of a strong, idealized male regardless of what we really want. Action heroes in movies become our role models before we realize they are all just killers. Child soldiers bear the brunt of this zeitgeist in the worst way possible. In no time they learn the truths of life and become utterly consumed. They accept their roles as men, content their childhoods are beyond lost in face of life long trauma.
Never is the culture of masculinity more prevalent than in Africa. Many tribal customs revolve around masculinity like female circumcision, breast ironing, and the participation in war. From Shaka Zulu to Charles Taylor, it has become commonplace to see children too small for their AKs fighting alongside adults. With an excess of orphans and the consumption of drugs, including gunpowder, using kids has become easier as times grow more dangerous. The issue, however, has received limited converge in entertainment. Blood Diamond and MGSV are the best examples I can think of that feature child soldiers. What does Beasts of No Nation have to say on the matter?
In the midst of the Sierra Leone Civil War, Agu, played by Abraham Attah, becomes orphaned after government soldiers kill his father. Wandering through the jungle, he happens upon a group of rebels where he is trained to fight under the leadership of Commandant, played by Idris Elba.
Beasts is not your average war movie. It is not straightforward nor does it tell you anything. Whatever we learn comes through in the acting and light narration. Aesthetically it has a lot in common with Apocalypse Now, deliberately surreal and dreamlike with bright colors and unconventional editing. There are many long shots and slow pans in the midst of chaos, set to a score of ambient noise or nothing at all. It bears a very natural quality as it takes place entirely outdoors and naked to the elements. I found myself immersed, the very atmosphere of the environments coming off the screen. You can almost smell the bodies under the sun or jungle in the aftermath of a battle.
Being his first staring role, Attah did a great job. He gives Agu an inherent innocence that slowly wanes as he becomes assimilated into the life of a soldier. A part of his childhood remains, but forever changed by the horrors he has seen and inflicted upon others. Elba carries his share of the movie along side Attah. His charisma and intensity complement Commandant’s fierce leadership style as he inspires his men to fight. He is both scary and compelling, a man whose sole purpose is war. He is similar to his soldiers, but all the more worse.
Beasts of No Nation is a movie you do not see too often. It is a provocative, tragic art film with beautiful, striking visuals. It is important for what it has to say on being a soldier, young and old, but it is not for the faint of heart. If you have Netflix, definitely give it a look. Best of all, it does not cost the price of a movie ticket.