Not Rated. Running time: 2 hours 17 min.
Our content ratings: Violence 6; Language 6; Sex/Nudity 4.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
For they eat the bread of wickedness and drink the wine of violence.
They do not know how to do right, says the Lord,
those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.
It would be better for you if a millstone were hung around your neck
and you were thrown into the sea than for you to cause one of these little ones to stumble.
This fact-based film is the first fictional feature distributed by Netflix. In sometimes shocking detail it puts a human face on those reports you have read and seen about the boy soldiers of West Africa, forced by war lords into fighting for their causes. Narrated by 13 year-old Agu (Abraham Attah), member of a devout Christian family, the story follows the downward spiral of his life as, in an unnamed African nation plagued with a civil war, government troops slaughter the older members of his family when they think they are spies. He flees into the jungle, only to be picked up boy soldiers of the Commandant (Idris Elba). The latter takes a liking to the prisoner, mentoring him in some unsavory ways, including forcing the boy to butcher a pleading prisoner as his initiation into the ranks. By what amounts to mass brainwashing the Commandant instills a hatred of the government into the boy’s mind, one that over-rides his Christian upbringing about respecting the lives of others. Thus Agu joins with the other “beasts of no nation” in ferocious attacks on villages that result in mass slaughter.
However, his mentor’s brainwashing cannot wipe away all traces of the boy’s conscience. At one point Agu observes: “Bullet is just eating everything, leaves, trees, ground, person. Eating them. Just making person to bleed everywhere. We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going. Sun, why are you shining at this world? I am wanting to catch you in my hands, to squeeze you until you can not shine no more. That way, everything is always dark and nobody’s ever having to see all the terrible things that are happening here.”
The Commandant is a brute, but he is savvy enough to create a sense of family among the boys, knowing that they will gain a sense of empowerment and fight better. He tells the assembled “troops, “All of you that have never been listened to before and have seen your family killed, huh, you now have something that stands for you. You now have something that stands for you!”
Agu finds a friend or brother in the slightly older boy Strika (Emmanuel “King Kong” Nii Adom Quaye) who is ordered to train him. Strika is mute, whether from trauma or other cause we are not told, but able to communicate through gestures. From him Agu learns the ropes and finds support to endure the hardships of their marches and ravages.
Director Cary Joji Fukunaga, who also helmed Jane Eyre and Sine Nombre, does a fine job with the non-professional child actors, as well as the script he co-wrote with Uzodinma Iweala, based on the novel by American-born writer Nigerian Uzodinma Iweala. Not just film “entertainment,” this is important viewing because it makes us aware of the plight of far too many children today—according to some reports more than 300,000 children who are currently serving as soldiers in conflicts around the globe. One can only imagine what the One who loved children so much will say to such men as the Commandant when he “comes again to judge the quick and the dead.”
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Feb. 2015 issue of VP.