Idris Elba plays a fearsome warlord in Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts of No Nation. Photo courtesy of Netflix.
While delivering her annual report to the United Nations General Assembly in October, Leila Zerrougui told the member states that there has been an “increasing disregard for international law” in many conflict situations around the world, leading to a worsening of the plight of children.
It seems that now, as ever, high-profile filmmakers who are blessed with a large audience have a responsibility to accurately represent their subjects with thought and precision, or else they risk potentially furthering the misrepresentation of crisis – causing a delay in positive action.
US film director Cary Fukunaga, who enjoyed recent success with the first season of the critically lauded True Detective, is now tackling new frontiers. Having contributed to the McConaissance, he’s now at the helm of a new kind of takeover: that from Netflix. The viewing platform gained the rights to Beasts of No Nation earlier this year and has used their global platform to reach an impressive number of viewers. It was reported that by the end of October, more than 3 million viewers had tuned in at their leisure to watch the gritty tale of a child soldier set in a fictional West African country, based on the 2005 novel of the same name from Uzodinma Iweala. Beasts of No Nation was also released in a handful of independent cinemas, to a much smaller impact, thought to solidify the creative and cast’s chances for award domination once the season is in swing. Netflix plans to continue this success with upcoming projects from Angelina Jolie and Adam Sandler also being released on the popular site.
Beasts of No Nation opens on main character, Agu (Abraham Attah) going about his life with his friends: “It is starting like this,” he says as the camera pans out from a television set, sans screen, that stands between Agu and his friend. There is a civil war looming nearby; school is now cancelled. In the absence of learning, Agu demonstrates entrepreneurship by taking the frame of his father’s television set and hawking it to random adults in his path. As he barks genres at his friends, they act out generic scenes that they have witnessed on their home televisions; Agu calls this “Imagination TV”. Part of the irony of Netflix’s domination of audiences is that, in many African villages, the broadband quality is simply not high enough to allow streaming; indeed, Netflix is unavailable in Ghana, where much of the film was shot. The children of these villages will not have access to one of the most watched movies that purports to be about their lives.
“Imagination TV” sees the children create their own dream world before this power is taken away from them. It is a pivotal moment in the film in two ways. First, a violent force erupts within their own world, destroying their ability to determine their own identity; second, outside of the fictional reality, the filmmaker’s representation yields further power, dislodging them from their public global identity.
Agu’s home village is overrun by a civil war that tears apart his family and home, seemingly reminiscent of events in Liberia, Nigeria or Sierra Leone. Where the film is set remains unknown. As Noah Tsika writes in his article Beasts of No Nation and the child soldier genre, the language in the novel is strongly influenced by various Nigerian dialects (Iweala, the author, is himself Nigerian); the film’s first act features characters speaking Twi, an Akan language widely used in Ghana. Tsika is critical of the filmmakers “gimmicky presentation of an ill-defined ‘Africa’”. Perhaps the intention was to underline the “no nation” aspect of the title; the blend of dialects and language could be seen as a tool that reinforces our ignorance of Africa, our willingness to understand the continent as a “no place” and to portray singular narratives as being wholly representative of the continent.
Far from what Sir Thomas More considered a “no place” when the term “utopia” came into being, the reality of Beasts is a hellish encounter that sees children ripped apart from their families in barbaric violence, to then be groomed by damaged men who plot to keep their empire strong. Only a stone’s throw from the young pubs of yesterday, the children are repositioned instantaneously as fierce predators. Stolen and tainted by psychopathic leaders, child soldiers on screen are not unfamiliar. Africa is frequently presented as a site of suffering.
A particularly brutal aspect of the violence that Beasts depicts is that against women. Taking the sole forms of family figures or prostitutes, they are never the enforcers of violence. We see women brutalised and raped, always receiving the upper echelons of its wrath. In a 2013 Guardian article by the Global Development Network, the broad categorisation of females in war torn landscapes as “victims of sexual abuse obscures that they are often highly valued militarily”. Two years on, in a film watched by over 3 million people online, a simplistic representation of female in war torn land is ever present. The sexual violence inflicted upon women within war torn regions is horrific and there have been recent movements to address this. In 2014, a London-held summit calling for an end to sexual violence in conflict drew global attention when Foreign Secretary William Hague was joined by fellow co-chair Angelina Jolie.
The stark reality is that 40% of the child soldiers across the globe are women. By excluding them from the representation of child soldiers on screen, we are endangering their chances of aid. The rehabilitation of girl child soldiers is seen as particularly complex because of the multifaceted roles that they may take up within a group: “they serve as combatants, spies, domestics, porters and ‘bush wives’”. There are disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes that have become an integral part of post-conflict peace operations in the past 20 years, but the invisibility of girl child soldiers in such widely seen narratives asBeasts ensures that their access to assistance is made more troublesome as a simplified view of the role of girls and boys in war-torn regions is reinforced.
A striking moment of cinematography occurs about an hour into the film, where the colour filters are washed with a deep fuchsia pink and the atmosphere becomes surreal. The image is akin to Richard Mosse’s photographs that won the 2014 Deutsche Börse Photography Prize. Perhaps, to play devil’s advocate, this serves as a significant reminder that we are watching an artist’s representation of a subject that is rendered fascinating across the globe. As a filmmaker, we can accept that this is his representation and cannot be wholly representative for Africa, enforced further by the fact it is set on a fiction novel and is in no way a documentary. But, it is continual depictions like these that reinforce simplistic understandings of Africa.
In July this year, it was announced that Netflix struck a deal for Angelina Jolie to produce and direct First They Killed My Father, a memoir written by former child-soldier Loung Ung about her time during the Khmer Rouge period in Cambodia. Perhaps, upon the release of Jolie’s film, a more gender-balanced depiction of child soldiers will take root and a more accurately complex narrative will prompt more comprehensive aid and rehabilitation for male and female soldiers.