‘Beasts of No Nation’ gives voice to narrative of African child soldiers

Netflix/Courtesy

“Beasts of No Nation,” an immersive depiction of African child soldiers by Cary Joji Fukunaga, will leave you devastated. We follow a young boy, Agu, as he is ripped away from home and forced to join a ragtag rebel militia, NDF, featuring Idris Elba as their fearless commandant. Preceding the release of “Beasts of No Nation” last Friday on Netflix and in select theaters, The Daily Californian was given the opportunity to sit down with Mr. Fukunaga to discuss his hopes while making the film and why he chose to tell the narrative of child soldiers.

For Fukunaga, the Emmy-award winning director of the first season of “True Detective,” the plight of child soldiers became an interest during his studies at a French political science institute. “That was where I first saw images of child soldiers, and it just struck me,” he said. Fukunaga is no stranger to telling stories of human struggle and suffering, as seen in his 2009 film on immigration, “Sin Nombre.” “You start to feel this sense of responsibility when people are sharing their life stories with you … to sort of honor that generosity, I guess, of their own experiences.”

At a press conference in Venice, Fukunaga explained that he conducted extensive research while writing the script for “Beasts.” Many of Agu’s horrific rites of passage were based on the practices of child soldiers in Sierra-Leone — just one testament to the importance Fukunaga placed on doing their reality justice.

“For child soldiers,” he explained, “a lot of the movies I saw were overly sentimental, or exploitational.” In reaction to this, he offers a metacognizant critique of media exploitation during one scene when a United Nations van drives past Agu and the militia on the street. A white photographer hangs out of the back window, photographing the militia as they march to their next destination.

This flash of reality ignites frustration at the sensational nature of how child soldiers are represented — something Fukunaga criticizes and avoids in his film. “Some people could still say no matter what you do, no matter how hard you try, you’re still being exploitational, but it was one of those things that I felt I still had to tell, and that I felt hadn’t been told right,” he explained.

“Beasts,” make no mistake, is jarringly violent. What makes the violence so nauseating, however, is its realism. “For me, it was more about … Agu’s personal journey feeling like it’s based in some sort of real experience,” Fukunaga explained. “There’s cause and effect.” As a result of Fukunaga’s storytelling, we cling to the memory that Agu — and many child soldiers like him — was once a good boy from a good family, regardless of the monstrosities he commits. When he plays with other boy soldiers, these children play simple games of imagination. When he splits a man’s skull, his retching sounds like the hiccups of a baby bird.

Fukunaga was blunt when he was asked if he has any hopes for the impact of the film. “I know you can inspire, but to expect your movie to change the world is a bit narcissistic … I don’t expect it,” he said. “But I do want people to feel like they know these characters. To remember them so that when they read about it in the news, it’s not just like, ‘Oh, isn’t that awful.’ ”

As our conversation drew to a close and I stood up to leave, I noticed Abraham Attah, the 15-year old Ghanaian actor who played Agu, standing quietly by the doorway. He had wandered in during the last minute of the interview, barefooted and fidgeting in the stuffy hotel atmosphere. I stammered as we shook hands and he smiled shyly, unsure of what to do with the attention.

As Attah and Fukunaga prepared for their next interview, I couldn’t help but think that, for the second time, I was watching the young boy getting whisked away into another whirlpool that he may neither fully understand nor be prepared for. Yet my reaction was a testament to the film’s potential to change — if not the world — the way people respond to the child soldier narrative. Despite not knowing Attah, I found myself caring for him. Through Attah, “Beasts of No Nation” has given a face to the children who have gone invisible for far too long.

Contact Sofia Raimondi at [email protected].