I’ve always thought of films as educational pieces of entertainment. A film is sorta like a documentary, capable of transporting audiences into small regions of the world hosted by fictional characters and we have the pleasure and privilege of sitting back and watching those characters interact and behave. It’s my impression that director Cary Joji Fukunaga sees films in a similar way. He’s still considered a new director, gaining momentum in the world of independent filmmaking, but I’ve been impressed by his choice of material. The first film of Fukunaga’s that I saw was Sin Nombre (2009), about a Honduran girl immigrating to the United States, accompanied by a teenage boy who’s trying to escape a murderous gang. They travel atop a train, along with discordant families and renegade outcasts, hoping to cross into the U.S. The second film was the television mini-series True Detective (2014), about a pair of Louisiana detectives investigating a serial killer over the course of 17 years. While following the detectives, we’re introduced to the many different degrees of southerners, from the upscale and holy to methamphetamine dealers and the superstitious. In each of these films, Fukunaga drops us into a different region of the world where customs and cultures are brand new and different from our own. Fukunaga seems like a man that is open and willing to embrace the larger world. He hopes that his audience is willing to explore, to learn from his films and realize that people and their problems are different depending on the region in which they live and work.
Beasts of No Nation is Fukunaga’s most recent film and stars an African child named Agu (Abraham Attah). Agu lives in a small African village. He’s a playful and friendly child. His father is a teacher, a warm and caring man, and his mother is devoted to her children. He has an older brother and two younger sisters and a feeble grandfather, all who he loves and cares for very much. War is a foreign concept to Agu. A childhood game that he plays with his friends until it descends upon his village. His mother and sisters manage to escape, but his father and brother are gunned down by nationalist soldiers. Scared and alone, Agu flees into the jungle where he spends his days and nights wandering aimlessly until he is captured by rebels. The rebels are a rag-tag army of children and teenagers armed with AK-47s and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Their commandant (Idris Elba) is a robust and hardened man. He tells Agu to stand tall, to stand proud, and to speak so that his voice may be heard. He asks Agu if he would like to avenge his father and brother, to kill those that are responsible. Agu’s answer is a simple one: “Yes, sir!”
From that moment onward, Agu’s childhood is over. His family is now a foreign concept to him, a distant and fleeting memory that he can never have back. In a ceremony hosted by priests, Agu dies and is reborn as a warrior. He is part of an army now, a guerilla soldier who must follow the word of his commandant if he wants to live among these misfits and lost boys. His first victim is an innocent man, a civil engineer that is being escorted by the national army. Agu is ordered to hack the man’s skull open with a machete. He knows that if he does not do as his commandant tells him he might be executed. Agu raises the machete high above his head. His face tenses and his eyes turn black. He lets the machete fall. The man’s head splits open. Agu is rewarded for murdering the man with a Kalishnakov rifle, one that he uses with extreme prejudice as he goes to war, killing innocents while hopped up on whoonga. The once easily definable line between friend and foe becomes blurred. Everyone is the enemy now. Agu kills so that he may live and find his mother and sisters, at least that is what he tells himself, but his initial purpose is lost. He is a child warrior reborn so that he may kill kill kill!
Beasts of No Nation transports us to a world that is far from our own and one that we have the luxury of sitting back and watching from a safe distance. The location is non-specific, except that it is somewhere in an African nation, where the people are divided by a war between nationalists and rebels. Those that are caught in the crossfire are innocent villagers living a simple existence, wanting nothing to do with the divided fractions. The purpose of the war is never explained except that the rebel army considers themselves to be freedom-fighters. Agu and his silent friend, Strika, are not killers, or even warriors. They are scared orphan children with machine guns lead by a fanatical man who considers himself to be a god. “A child’s mind is a dangerous weapon”, says the commandant. It’s frightening to witness the events that take place in this war-torn country. The United Nation’s army monitors the chaos, but they do not have control. These brainwashed children are completely out of control. They’re supervised by hell-bent commandants and war-mongering generals. Most of them are beyond the point of returning to any kind of civilized way of life or normalcy, but some still have the chance of being saved. Agu is one of the fortunate ones. His apocalyptic episode as a child-war-machine eventually comes to an end, but only after he’s sacrificed his innocence.
Beasts of no Nation is controversial, not only for its subject matter, but for its distribution as well. The film is distributed by Netflix and is the first film to ever be released theatrically and through streaming on Netflix simultaneously. Major movie theaters were not pleased with this method of release since they have an agreement with distributors that the home entertainment premiere of a film must be delayed 90 days after the theatrical release, therefore only one movie theater allowed for the film’s theatrical release: Landmark Theaters. Beasts of no Nation’s estimated budget was $6 million. It grossed $51,000 on its opening weekend. I guess the model for distribution of films is not ready for change, nor are major movie theaters going to allow it to change.