By E. P. Whinters
The Academy Awards are over for another year, the Golden Statues have all been handed out. Whether you agree with the winner or not, it’s done. However, there was a movie that was not recognized, but many say it should have been – its youngest star handed out an award with the Oscar Night’s other cherub. If you watched the Awards, perhaps you remember the two young boys who gave out the award for Best Live Action Short Film: Jacob Tremblay from Room and Abraham Attah from Beasts of No Nation? I saw Room … what was this Beasts of No Nation? Who is this Abraham Attah? I know it was one of the snubbed films, but what was it about?
This film, running over 2 hours long, is one of the most difficult and heart-wrenching movies I’ve seen in a long time. And, the accolades heaped on its young star are very deserving. This film is about a world most of us are ignorant to but is alive and well in parts of our globe; it’s about war through the Africans’ eyes, about child soldiers and the men that train them; it’s about a boy’s innocence lost, manipulated, controlled and destroyed. People get upset when animals are mistreated; how much more should we become enraged when we realize what is being done to our children. This movie shares that story with us.
Beasts of No Nation, the 2015 film, is based on the 2005 novel of the same name by the Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala and follows a young 8-year old boy, Agu (played by Attah) from childhood and his carefree days with his family, through the loss of his family and friends and into the horrors of a new ‘family’ of child warriors, trained by The Commandant (played by Idris Elba). It is hard to say that this was a ‘good’ movie, and even harder to recommend it, but it was the kind of film that will stay with the viewer long after it is over.
This is not a movie for children; and I don’t think it’s even a movie for young adults. Though there are quaint moments, moments when your heart warms as the children play as children do, there are far more scenes where we see this world that destroys childhood and marks them for life. The director, Cary Joji Fukunaga, provided visuals that were powerful in their sweeping expanse with little dots for people to close-ups of facial expressions and moments in time. There are scenes of horror, but the gore is not gratuitous nor overly excessive in any way, but its proliferation is by far enough for the viewer to be affected like few other films. Though the movie is not based on a true character or country, the story of the Child Warrior is true, and probably much worse in many ways than what we see in this film.
I think what captured my interest the most was the psychology behind this movie – how this innocent boy is taken, his desire for love and a family is tapped into, and he is trained to kill; something unimaginable at the start but when you become a part of the training, somehow you understand why he did what he did. To revenge his father’s death? To be one of the boys? To make The Commandant happy? To belong? To have food and safety? It’s all there in some way, and more. And The Commandant – a horrible man, for sure, but not without his merits in a way – he gives these boys a home, a place, food, security; he calls them ‘son’ and he is their ‘father’. How he can be both despicable and understandable is a fine line, one that Elba dances with absolute perfection. And, from what I know of brainwashing and manipulation, of training and ‘team-building’, there is an accurate foundation in what we see. We just see it carried into a realm that is almost beyond belief, but we know in our heart that it is true.
To quote Matt Zoller Seitz, “Beasts does a solid job of showing how quickly a child’s moral compass can be knocked off-axis, how men like The Commandant can bask in the adoration of immature or gullible followers and become despots within the dictatorships they serve, and how easy it is to teach a child to kill and rape when the reward (in addition to food, shelter and protection) is love, or a twisted facsimile.” And to see this whole story, much like the Academy nominated Room, through the eyes of its young star, is unsettling and horrific.
Only one other movie in my memory did I come to the end of it and have a sickness in my stomach at my inability to change or influence what I witnessed. Rosewood, a film from 1997 about the destruction of a small town in Florida, made me ill – I wanted to ‘wash the white off my skin’, and Beasts is in the same category for me. Instead of changing the colour of my skin, the heated emotion rising in me is one that wants to fight for our children, for those who are abused and don’t know better, in worlds that I see far away from me. I am grateful I saw it and I have no desire to ever see it again. Beasts of No Nation is not a movie to be enjoyed; it’s a movie to open your awareness to the reality of parts of the world we live in. It’s a movie that will forever make me listen to world events with a different understanding than what I had before. It’s a movie where we, much like Agu, are affected and in some ways, will never be the same again. In the end, Agu shares with the viewers: “I saw terrible things… and I did terrible things. So if I’m talking to you, it will make me sad and it will make you too sad. In this life… I just want to be happy in this life. If I’m telling this to you… you will think that… I am some sort of beast… or devil. I am all of these things… but I also having mother… father… brother and sister once. They loved me.” And in the end, isn’t that what we all want? What we all need? To be loved? The scary thing is how far we sometimes go to receive what we thinki is that love. Some of us become beasts.
Film: Beasts of No Nation
Starring: Abraham Attah and Idris Elba
Playing: on Netflix