Cary Joji Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation can be seen as a statement of intent by Netflix, given that the company has spent a year and many millions of dollars getting its original movie arm up and running; one or two Netflix’s own documentaries have already received critical praise – such as last year’s Oscar-nominated Virunga – but this is the first original feature film they have put out, released for a week into selected cinemas to make it eligible for next year’s Academy Awards but now available to stream via the ever-expanding service. It was made for $6m, and Netflix bought exclusive rights for $12m, yet its relevance and future success may prove to be unmeasurable in fiscal terms: it signals the beginning of a new era in which the VOD industry will seek to further influence the viewing habits of millions and take its share of the financial pie away from the megaplex cinema chains, some of which unsurprisingly boycotted the movie.
It’s an engrossing but tough watch, and one that will surely result in the company gaining many new customers during the next six months. Fukunaga’s star has been in the ascendancy ever since he made the acclaimed Sin Nombre a few years back, and he has since displayed a keen desire to work within different genres and media; he took on costume drama with Jane Eyre, directed all eight episodes of the magnificent first season of TV drama True Detective, and now turns his attention to African child soldiers, adapting Uzodinma Iweala’s bestseller. Based around the life of a young boy named Agu (played superbly by Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah, making his screen debut), the story begins by detailing the child’s upbringing in an unnamed African country (though linguists and academics studying the original book have suggested it bears a strong resemblance to Nigeria). When we first see Agu he’s with several other kids and busy trying to sell what he calls ‘imagination TV’ to a few ECOMOG soldiers, the director filming the kids through the shell of a television set, perhaps aware of the fact that the majority of the audience will be used to watching images of African in such a way. The tone at the beginning is initially light: though war rages elsewhere in the country the lives of the children and their families in this village do not appear to be in any great immediate danger, but ruthless military-aligned rebels soon arrive and Agu is left to fend for himself in the jungle. He is eventually found by a platoon of the NDF, another rising rebel faction led by Idris Elba’s charismatic but despicable Commandant, and much of the subsequent running time of the film is devoted to Agu’s upsetting metamorphosis from carefree kid to ruthless child soldier. This incorporates a brutal initiation, abuse and several harrowing scenes of conflict and violence, the action staying with the platoon for the majority of the duration.
Made in Ghana, Fukunaga – who is also the cinematographer – shows no sign of being cautious or overwhelmed by the environment, which was presumably unfamiliar to him, and his camera movement is graceful while his numerous crisp shots from on high allow us to get a handle on the numbers of the militia group and the scale of the various camps they set up; first on top of a hill, later in an abandoned gold mine. He does not hold back with regard to the violence but neither does he milk it or stuff his film with action; when it comes it is quick, and extremely brutal: a boy murdered for failing to complete a training task, for example, or a woman who is shot in the head while she is being raped, and so on. Many of these acts are being perpetrated in the film by kids and teenagers, some of whom, like Agu, are barely able to lift and point the automatic weapons they carry. It’s understandable that some people will be put off from watching such upsetting subject matter, but Beasts Of No Nation is worth praising for the way it successfully highlights a growing problem: it is estimated that there are more than 300,000 child soldiers forced to fight in Africa today, and the film will surely draw more attention to their plight. It’ll be hard for Netflix to measure just how many new subscribers they receive as a result of any critical praise the piece receives, but hopefully the company will share at least a small percentage of its profits next year with charities such as War Child. Special mention must go to the cast: Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom Quaye – also making his debut – impresses as a mute child soldier named Strika, while Elba and Attah should both be receiving Oscar nominations. If they do not appear on the list of nominees it could potentially be the result of some kind of industry smackdown delivered to the company that happens to be distributing their film; I can’t think of any other good reason for either being ignored, with the usual caveats as we head into the season.
Directed by: Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Written by: Cary Joji Fukunaga. Based on Beasts Of No Nation by Uzodinma Iweala.
Starring: Abraham Attah, Idris Elba, Emmanuel ‘King Kong’ Nii Adom Quaye.
Cinematography: Cary Joji Fukunaga.
Editing: Mikkel E. G. Nielsen, Pete Beaudreau.
Music: Dan Romer.
Running Time: 137 minutes.