“The only way not to be fighting anymore is to be dying”
The American-Ghanaian war drama film Beasts of No Nation (2015) was a project Cary Joji Fukunaga, who went on to direct the James Bond film No Time to Die (2021), threw himself into with remarkable passion. He not only wrote, directed and co-produced the film, but was also the cinematographer.
Although the film is based on Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel of the same name, the director was deep in the throes of research on the Sierra Leone Civil War (1991-2002) long before coming across it. It should be noted, however, that the plot of the novel takes place in an unnamed West African country.
As civil war tears Agu’s (Abraham Attah) family apart, he finds himself in the clutches of the fiercely charismatic Commandant (Idris Elba), who molds young boys into child soldiers. As they undergo rigorous indoctrination, the acts that Agu finds himself committing blur the external world with his psyche, stripping his mind of the structures it had once relied on.
The film presents an account of guerrilla warfare from a young boy’s perspective. It makes sense, then, that the camera is never quite still and the sound of rattling guns flits from ear to ear, only to be vacuumed up with every popping explosion. The cinematography only adds to the headiness of the setting, breathing smoke into the boys’ faces and thickening their nostrils with the muggy vegetation that swallows their frail bodies. The colors shiver with life, presenting earth that is the shade of dampened rust, and fire the color of a poached sun.
Likewise, the editing is phenomenal, blending days and nights into a twilight zone between consciousness and sleep. And all this is presented to the accompaniment of gushing laughter and the meaty sound of a body being shredded by bullets. Naturally, the boys become desensitized to these horrors, unleashing a source of much greater dread; a violent metamorphosis. They shed skin as rapidly as their innocence, going from children to soldiers, then from men to boys again.
In the spirit of this mutation, Agu’s surroundings endure their own disfigurement. The Commandant’s behavior bares the truth about all ideologies. Meaning, of course, that they are often ruled by the ego, and its only means of control are fear and forced assimilation. This is where Idris Elba’s performance presents the full artillery of the eerie traits his characters possesses.
Their sly insertion into the story is all the more obscene because of the disquiet with which Agu has to subsume them. In short, Abraham Attah’s ability to make us squirm is unparalleled, proving the strength of the shoulders, on which he carries the magnitude of the film’s tension.
Relying mostly on his body language, Attah illustrates his character’s disillusionment with the world, his hiccuping fury with the sun for continuing to shine. In his eyes, the destruction that devours the profane, seen as the defiled world he stumbles through, should soar up to taste the sacred and put them out of their misery. In a state of spiritual agony, Agu endures the erasure of his identity.
The central inner conflict is also the source of the deepest reflections in the film. In her work on relationality in African child soldier narratives, Allison Mackey noted that there is a certain “hybridity” of the child and the soldier that leads to a troubling rationalization of Agu’s transformation. After all, he’s a good boy when he’s killing because that’s what soldiers are supposed to do.
This observation roots out the most unshakable element of the film, which owes its deformity to how true it rings for the real child soldiers in Africa; the vandalizing of a child in order to host the form of a predator.
While Richard Sennett, a professor of sociology, was referring to the disparity between social classes, his words can be broadened to include the stimuli driving an individual toward a perceived freedom. In the case of Beasts of No Nation, the rebels’ extreme means of securing their shared view of freedom are justified. But as we see for ourselves, the price may prove too high to pay.