Saturday, 17 October 2015

Film Review - 'Beasts of No Nation'

The uniquely tragic plight of children taken up and forced to become soldiers in conflicts around the world is something that many of us should already have some degree of familiarity with. Beasts of No Nation is not the first time that this particular subject matter has been explored, either in fiction or non-fiction, after all. But, it is also important subject matter - so, the fact that it has been covered before shouldn't be taken as any sort of mark against this film. What matters is the quality of the film, itself - and, what it contributes to our understanding of this important issues. Because, of course, with Beasts of No Nation being what it is, most viewers would have to go in knowing that this isn't the sort of film you would watch purely for 'entertainment'.

As the film opens, we meet Agu (Abraham Attah), a young boy living a contented life in a small African village. His village has, recently, become home to an increasing number of refugees, and there is a UN presence nearby to help keep the peace - both of which are worrying. But, for Agu, life continues as normal. He has friends. He has a loving family. And, he has a playful rivalry with his older brother.

The sharp contrast between these opening moments and everything that follows is, of course, entirely intentional - as it's not long until Agu's little village finds itself caught in the middle of civil war. Government forces move in and, mistakenly believing that the inhabitants are rebel spies, brutally executes everyone they find - including members of Agu's own family. Barely escaping, Agu flees into the wilderness, where he is promptly captured by actual rebel forces, lead by the unnamed Commandant (Idris Elba) - a charismatic and intimidating figure who offers Agu a new home and the chance for revenge.

The film makes the interesting choice of leaving the exact time and place in which it is set unrevealed. We know that the film takes place in Africa, obviously - but, it is never explicitly stated which of the smaller countries that make up Africa we are seeing. Similarly, there's nothing here that seems to clearly indicated what year the film takes place in. That, combined with the fact that I was essentially going in blind regarding much of the conflict and political tension that has taken place in that part of the world, meant that I often felt lost, and completely overwhelmed, while watching Beasts of No Nation.

That isn't a weakness, though - in fact, I might even go as far as saying that it was the film's intent. We are seeing all of this through Agu's eyes, after all - so, sharing in his experience of being caught up in a situation that defies any attempt at understanding actually feels entirely appropriate. There is, quite often, a very disjointed quality to everything that happens here - with the film being, understandably, much more concerned with showing us the various ways in which the the violent life of a child soldier takes its toll on Agu then it is with providing a clearly defined narrative. The film will jump from moment to moment in way that often feels jarring. Scenes of children playing a simple game will be intercut with scenes of those same children, now back in their role as soldiers, in training - and, then, we may find them in the middle of preparing an ambush for an unnamed enemy.

For the most part, this disjointed structure works to support the sense of chaotic confusion that the film seems to be going for by inviting us to experience it all through Agu's eyes. That constant sense of not knowing where we are, or why the things we are seeing are happening, is not quite the weakness in Beasts of No Nation that it might have been in other films. Although, that being said, there are moments toward the end where the film's insistence on keeping the focus on Agu does become somewhat frustrating - such as the indication of tension between the Commandant and his own superior which seems to suggest a fascinating story that we never get to see play out.

The film doesn't feel any real need to shy away from the, often brutal, violence taking place around Agu, either. And, watching this once innocent young child begin to take part in this same violence, himself, can make for genuinely uncomfortable viewing. One scene in particular, in which we watch as Agu is pressured into killing a defenceless prisoner in what I imagine would have to be a disturbingly common 'rite of passage' for child soldiers, is particularly unpleasant - especially when we see him seem to lose himself in that moment of violence. This moment, along with many others, is clearly intended to shock and disturb the audience - but, importantly, these scenes never feel gratuitous. The violence we see here is an important, even necessary, part of the story being told - after all, with the film's subject matter being what it is, it would have been much more conspicuous had it not been present.

Beasts of No Nation is a film filled with more than its share of great performances. It is just a shame that, with a few very obvious exceptions, much of the film's varied cast of characters isn't really given the time and focus they would have need to establish themselves. Again, that really comes down to the film's focus being kept exclusively on Agu. Abraham Attah and Idris Elba each play an equal part in the film's success, though. The young new-comer is, in fact, more than capable of matching the older veteran - giving a performance that is disturbingly convincing as he shows us a young boy profoundly changed by his horrible experiences. That, along, should be enough to make Beasts of No Nation well worth watching.

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