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Thursday, September 3, 2015

Child Soldiers: The Beasts of No Nation

Presentato in concorso alla 72esima edizione del Festival di Venezia, Beasts of No Nation si basa sull’acclamatissimo romanzo dell’autore nigeriano Uzodinma Iweala, e racconta l’avvincente storia di Agu, un bambino soldato strappato alla sua famiglia per combattere nella guerra civile di un paese africano.

The unsentimental education of an African child soldier is captured with savage beauty and matter-of-fact horror in “Beasts of No Nation,” a tough-minded, tough-viewing chronicle of a civil war as seen through the eyes of one of its youngest casualties. 

Having moved with growing confidence from a slick Mexican gangland saga (“Sin nombre”) to a tony Victorian lit adaptation (“Jane Eyre”) to a crackerjack American crime serial (season one of “True Detective”), writer-director Cary Joji Fukunaga pulls off another chameleonlike turn with this artful, accomplished but not entirely sustained adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 debut novel, never quite finding an ideal cinematic equivalent for the singular spareness and ferocity of the author’s prose. 

By turns lucid and a bit logy, and undeniably overlong, it’s nevertheless the rare American movie to enter a distant land and emerge with a sense of lived-in human experience rather than a well-meaning Third World postcard. As such, its aesthetic integrity won’t make its grueling subject matter an easier sell to the mainstream.

Following its festival premieres at Venice, Telluride and Toronto, Fukunaga’s long-gestating passion project will prove a significant test of Netflix’s arthouse reach and marketing savvy when it rolls out Oct. 16 via the company’s streaming service, simultaneous with its limited theatrical release through Bleecker Street Media. Still, it’s unclear if the relative ease of on-demand viewing will offset the challenge of a starkly violent 136-minute war drama with no recognizable cast names except Idris Elba, providing a lone burst of star wattage in a context that could otherwise scarcely feel more harrowingly grounded in reality. 

With its high-profile pedigree and mostly English dialogue, “Beasts of No Nation” may be more accessible than recent child-soldier dramas like Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s “Johnny Mad Dog” (2008), Noaz Deshe’s “White Shadow” (2014) and Kim Nguyen’s Oscar-nominated “War Witch” (2012), but it’s no more likely to win over the faint of heart.
This is, after all, the story of Agu (Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah), a young boy from an unnamed African country who finds himself orphaned amid a sudden outbreak of violence, then swiftly adopted by a warlord known as the Commandant (Elba), who trains him to be a guerrilla fighter in a conflict he’s barely old enough to comprehend. In the novel, which wove together scenes from Agu’s brutal new life with memories of happier days at home with his family, Iweala wrote in a poetically primitive first-person voice that gave even the flashbacks a present-tense urgency; it was a stream-of-consciousness thriller in which the boy’s half-formed insights and ideas erupted with convulsive force on the page. “I am not bad boy. I am soldier and soldier is not bad if he is killing,” Agu notes early on, capturing a world of moral confusion in one piercing line.
Fukunaga has retained many of the story’s particulars but reshuffled them into a more straightforward linear narrative, which begins with a warm, joyous portrait of Agu’s early childhood. We see him making mischief with his friends, pranking his older brother (Francis Weddey), and being a good if rascally son to his God-fearing mother (Ama K. Abebrese) and schoolteacher father (Kobina Amissah Sam). But everything changes as military tanks roll into their village and a reign of terror begins, tearing families apart and forcing everyone to flee. In a scene of overwhelming chaos and panic, Agu is abruptly separated from his mother and little sister (Vera Nyarkoah Antwi), and before long his father and his brother have left him as well, gunned down in a surge of carnage that is senseless and sudden, but not inexplicable. One of the key lessons of “Beasts of No Nation” is that all violence, however ghastly, has a point of origin.
Before long, Agu will find himself clad in makeshift fatigues, wielding a machete, and inflicting his own horrors as a member of a rebel army. Their leader, the Commandant, is a fiery seducer of minds and souls who incites his young conscripts to commit horrific acts of slaughter in the name of revenge. When he orders Agu to perform an initiation killing, he claims the victim-to-be was responsible for the death of the boy’s father — a lie that convinces no one, least of all Agu himself, but which provides a flimsy pretext for the grim, blood-spattered scene that follows. Words, more than rifles or machetes, turn out to be the Commandant’s weapon of choice: Barking and cajoling, he whips his young warriors into action with furious war rhetoric, even as he tries to lull them into a sense of familial camaraderie. By recasting himself as a sort of surrogate father figure, he can not only displace the memory of their parents, but also exploit it for his own murderous ends.
Elba hasn’t had a big-screen part this substantial since he was cast as a very different kind of African leader in “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” (2013), and in his skillfully underplayed performance, the Commandant emerges as both a charismatic villain in the grand Hollywood tradition and a persuasive product of his environment. Notably, while Fukunaga captures the insidious intimacy of the bond that develops between the Commandant and Agu, he omits the novel’s explicit scenes of the warlord sexually abusing his young charges, perhaps aware that this is one act of brutality that might exceed the limits of the audience’s tolerance. Despite a shaky third act that loses considerable narrative steam, the film ultimately conjures a measure of pathos for the Commandant following a tense meeting with his own superior (Jude Akuwudike), in which these puffed-up alpha males reveal themselves to be just two more cogs in the rumbling machinery of war.

A young Sudan People's Liberation Army child soldier holds a gun 

during the demobilisation of soldiers at Rumbek , sourthern Sudan. 

(Sayyid Azim, AP)
From the crude virtuality to the crude reality.
Sometimes terrible things happen to children, things that grown adults would be hard-pressed to withstand. Child Soldier: When Boys and Girls Are Used in War has the unenviable task of making something terrible that happens to children appropriate for other children to read, something the book’s author, Michel Chikwanine, takes seriously.

“It is the reality and sadness of our world today that such things happen to so many children,” he said.

Aimed at the 10 to 14 age range, the book is Chikwanine's own story. Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Chikwanine was abducted from his family and forced to act as a child soldier at the tender age of five during the Great War of Africa in 1993. Currently a graduate student at the University of Toronto’s Africa Studies program as well as an accomplished public speaker, Chikwanine has a gentle voice and little trace of an accent.

With a subject matter as incredibly serious and heavy as child soldiers, Chikwanine knew he had to stay careful of his audience. “Very luckily, I’m a public speaker,” he said. “So I travel around giving lectures to universities, and all types of audiences. I’ve given lectures to a Pre-K class before. And so I have had the experience before over the past seven years of speaking to different audiences and managing to tailor it to different audiences.”

Chikwanine was not simply concerned with telling his story, though he wanted to make sure the skeleton of his story stayed intact. At the back of Child Soldier there’s a lot of educational info to get both parents and kids started on understanding not only the historical, political context in which Chikwanine's story happened, but also the ways in which they can help, too. Knowledge is presented as a call to action.

“I wanted to make sure my story gets through the whole thing, but also the context to this story, which I think always lacks when we explain it to young people,” Chikwanine said. “We tend to think that children, especially, won’t be able to understand the complexities that exist in the world. But children are really smart, and if you put it in their language, they are able to understand.”

The collaboration with co-writer Jessica Dee Humphreys began through the Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization on whose board Chikwanine serves as a member. Humphreys has co-authored books with Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, the founder of the initiative and the man in charge of UN forces during the Rwandan genocide. Jessica and Michel met through that connection, and in turn, Jessica brought Chikwanine to the attention of Kids Can Press, a Canadian-owned publisher of children’s books.

Finding the perfect illustrator for a children’s books about child soldiers was a challenge, as the illustrator needed to strike a delicate balance between what was real and what was appropriate: “We didn’t want to make it shocking, but we wanted to make sure that it’s there, that it’s involved, so they could see that there is violence here, but it’s not depicted in a way where it’s too graphic.” The adults loom, drawn from the point of view of a child, their faces full of emotion in a clean and accessible style.

The context of Chikwanine's story is one he is both anxious and insistent about presenting. Though the scope of his book did not allow for as much grounding in politics and history as he might have liked, Chikwanine is passionate about contextualizing his experience and the linkage of children and violence. 

“It’s not an isolated event that happens just on the continent of Africa,” he said. “A lot of people’s understanding comes that Africa is very violent, and that’s probably the only place that’s violent. And the reality is no.... We should be able to understand that this is not just an Africa thing but a problem that we all have in all our societies.”

Chikwanine hopes that the book will serve as an educational tool for both middle and high schoolers and plans to present the book at a teacher’s convention later this month. Ultimately, Chikwanine hopes that the book encourages its young readers to learn more for themselves about why child soldiers happen. 

“I hope that the book really inspires young people to explore that context, to ask questions about that context. Eventually, to come up with solutions. We need their energy. We need them to be engaged in our society as well,” Chikwanine said.

'Child Soldier: When Boys And Girls Are Used in War' Tells The Author's Difficult Story 09/01/2015

Scores of Congolese child soldiers are due to give evidence at the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the coming weeks against a man nicknamed The Terminator and held up as one of Africa's most brutal and feared warlords.

Bosco Ntaganda, 41, a former rebel commander in the mineral-rich and restive northeastern province of Ituri in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, faces 18 charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity including the rape and abuse of women and child soldiers by his troops.
He was accused of presiding over abuses over a year between 2002 and 2003 but remained at large for a decade when he unexpectedly walked into the US embassy in Rwanda after the collapse of then rebel group, the M23.

Congolese child soldiers to give evidence against ‘warlord’ Bosco Ntaganda at The Hague Aislinn Laing, Johannesburg 01 Sep 2015 

Who is Bosco Ntaganda – the man they call the 'Terminator' – and why is he on trial at the ICC Romil Patel September 2, 2015 

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