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Beasts Of No Nation’ Looks To Tragedy Of Child Soldiers

New film by Cary Joji Fukunaga

Idris Elba plays a charismatic rebel leader who teaches young Agu (Abraham At...

Credit: Netflix

Above: Idris Elba plays a charismatic rebel leader who teaches young Agu (Abraham Attah) how to kill in "Beasts of No Nation."

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KPBS film critic Beth Accomando reviews "Beasts of No Nation."

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Companion viewing

"Lost Boys of Sudan" (2003)

"Invisible Children" (2006)

"Sin Nombre" (2006)

Netflix moves into the theatrical realm with its first original feature “Beasts of No Nation” (opening Friday at Landmark’s Hillcrest Cinemas and also available streaming on Netflix).

Director Cary Joji Fukunaga tackled illegal immigration in his feature debut “Sin Nombre” in 2009. He returns to global human rights issues with his new film “Beasts of No Nation.”

Set in West Africa, the film chronicles a child soldier’s journey from family life in a small village to a loss of innocence fighting in a brutal war. We meet the pre-teen Agu (impressively played by Abraham Attah) as he watches his friends play soccer and tries to sell an “imagination TV” (i.e. a hollow set with no picture tube) to anyone who’ll go along with the scam.

But his family life is disrupted when army troops from the capital city arrive to suppress a rebellion against the country’s corrupt regime. Agu’s mother and little sister escape to a nearby city, but Agu and the male family members are left behind and get caught in the fighting.

Soon Agu finds himself alone and uncertain what to do. That’s when a charismatic rebel leader known as Commandant (Idris Elba) takes him under his wing and turns him into a child soldier.

As with “Sin Nombre,” Fukunaga tries to enlighten audiences to a serious human rights issue by personalizing the tragedy with a very specific story of individuals experiencing the situation firsthand.

For “Beasts of No Nation” he turns to the 2005 book by Uzodinma Iweala. The press materials describe Iweala as “a sociologist and physician who grew up in the U.S. but spent time in Nigeria, where his parents were born. Iweala has emerged as a leading voice in an exhilarating new generation of authors exploring both the fragile beauty and the harrowing corruption of post-colonial Africa in fresh, insistent voices.”

American audiences seem woefully under-informed about issues, as well as filmmaking in Africa. So “Beasts of No Nation” provides a perspective that many may only be casually aware of. In that respect, the film does a compelling and deeply compassionate job of introducing us to Agu’s world and its particular tragedies.

The strength of the film comes from the intensely intimate focus it keeps on Agu who is formidably played by young Attah. Attah lets us see Agu’s loss of innocence yet maintains his humanity and allows us to see glimpses of the child that remains inside the soldier. At one point Agu is interviewed by an adult woman and he thinks to himself that his experiences have made him an old man and she is like a girl because she has not seen what he has seen.

Fukunaga is consciously making a film with a social message and agenda. He has gained some maturity since he tackled immigration issues in “Sin Nombre” but he still feels like an outsider looking in, which is not necessarily a bad thing. After all, that is how most viewers are coming to West Africa as well.

“Beasts of No Nation” (unrated) intimately places us in Agu’s world in the hopes of enlightening us to the tragedy of child soldiers. It’s an engrossing and moving tale that is worth checking out. But I also hope this opens the doors to seeing films from African filmmakers on this topic being made and receiving release in the United States.

List of films about child soldiers from Cinema for Peace Foundation.

And here is a list from The Guardian of a few African-made films to provide a sample of the local filmmaking, and a fan-made list on IMDb of 90 African directors you can look for.

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Beth Accomando
Arts & Culture Reporter

opening quote marksclosing quote marksI cover arts and culture, from Comic-Con to opera, from pop entertainment to fine art, from zombies to Shakespeare. I am interested in going behind the scenes to explore the creative process; seeing how pop culture reflects social issues; and providing a context for art and entertainment.

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