Thanks to Netflix’s decision to buy the distribution right for Cary Fukunaga’s new film, Beasts of No Nation, I could watch the film at home on the same day as its limited release in theaters. Due to this, major theater groups, such as Regal Cinema and AMC, have decided to boycott the film, according to Time magazine. Some people think it is tragic that such a powerful film could have such a limited theatrical release, while others might say that the availability of the film via Netflix means that more people can see the film albeit only on small screen. It is true that these days many houses own big-screen TVs, but theater screens are still better suited for a more immersive cinematic art experience.
The film, based on Uzodinma Iweala’s novel of the same name, starts with a deceptively idyllic scene of a group of pre-teen children playing merrily in a “buffer zone” village in an unnamed western African country that is embroiled in civil war. The leader of the children is Agu. He is from a good family, with a good caring mother and father. His father is a teacher who currently functions as the village leader helping people in distress. However, when the rebel military group invades the ECOMOG (The Economic Community of West African States Monitoring Group) controlled buffer zone the village people are exposed to the blood-thirsty rebel forces. (This reminds us of the untenability of setting up a “buffer zone” to keep civilians safe in a war-torn country.) Agu’s father is able to buy car rides out of the now dangerous “buffer zone” for Agu’s mother and two younger siblings, but is unable to secure Agu’s seat in a packed van to the safer capital. As the rebel forces move into the village, Agu’s father and brother get killed, leaving Agu to fend for himself for survival. It is Agu’s voice-over narrative throughout the film that gives some sympathetic anchor to this violent film.
Agu struggles to survive in the untamed nature. The nature here looks serenely beautiful throughout most of the harrowing narrative (Fukunaga also functioned as the cinematographer in this film) endowing the film with a meditative tone. Agu who has not been initiated into life in the wild soon gets caught by a guerrilla rebel troop controlled by a charismatic leader, Commandant. The Commandant uses terror mixed with occasional “kindness,” pseudo-“religious” trance induced by tribal chanting and dancing, and cocaine ointment smeared into cut skin in order to indoctrinate his foot-soldiers, that include many young children under 10. Commandant demands total obedience from his soldiers, and he makes Agu perform the unspeakable act of hacking to death an unarmed engineer with a machete probably in order to make Agu realize that he no longer belongs to a civilized world. The indoctrination process often resembles the coming-of-age rituals of old, uncivilized communities.
The film is essentially a coming-of-age story for a young boy, who gets transformed from a fun-loving, ordinary boy into a vicious but occasionally guilt-ridden youth who does not hesitate to act in a most brutal manner due to savage indoctrination in the times of armed conflicts. The film shows graphic violence, which is often difficult to watch, in an unflinching manner. Nevertheless, the film ends on a hopeful note when Agu is rescued by UN forces, and placed in a camp for at-risk youths mostly because the voice-over narrative helps us the viewer see modicum of reflectiveness that Agu still retains.
The film never discloses which particular violent conflict is its historical background (though it is not difficult to guess that the Commandant was modelled after Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army). But, due to the film’s lack of specificity the film’s narrative is endowed with universality that can be applied to many armed conflicts. For instance, Agu’s narrative can be easily applied to the violent rebel forces in Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and elsewhere, which do not hesitate to use children as the pawns in their violent power struggles.