Written by Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
What Beasts of No Nation (2015), directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, is about is not only the loss of war: the loss of lives, of peace, of youth, of innocence, etc. It’s also about how war is loss. War is a lost cause, and no matter whose side you’re on you’ll never find a way back to the self you once knew. There’s no better way to say that than showing a child being dragged into a civil war, everything he once knew taken away from him. The African child soldiers depicted in the film are lost; they are the main proof of how, when you portray a war you can never just portray the violent, the glorious, the heroic aspects of it. It is not a war then but a mummer’s farce, because whenever an enemy falls a wife loses a husband, a mother loses a son, and a child becomes a soldier. When you kill a man on the battlefield you take away so much more than just his life, most notably a way for you to see the truth. The truth that “War is hell” is now an outdated phrase, and just saying that means nothing. War is loss, and that loss is most felt when a child is forced to go to war instead of going to school and enjoying his childhood, is what Beasts of No Nation is all about. Because when a child takes up arms, he or she ceases to belong in any nation, any community, but is now only a beast consumed by the loss cause of war. And there is no way back.
Beasts of No Nation traces the footsteps of Agu (Abraham Attah), a young orphan joining a guerrilla army and is personally trained by a fierce warlord who calls himself the Commandant (the incredible Idris Elba) as civil war rages in his country. Although the film is set in West Africa, many scenes remind me of the Vietnam War: poverty, AK-47, guerrilla soldiers, resistance armies, the dirt, the forest, and the scorching sun. And as an undergraduate doing research on the Vietnam War, reading materials and seeing pictures and watching videos about it everyday, I have read or heard about many accounts of faking ages to get into the Vietcong, or joining the military from a very young age. Lượm, the eponymous character in the poem of the same name that every Vietnamese children know by heart, is essentially a child soldier – he joined the army at a very young age as an intelligence soldier, and was shot and killed while on duty, delivering messages to the North Vietnam’s base of operation. In Beasts of No Nation there are children like him too, those who willingly join an army and willingly die for the cause. They act like children, they talk like children, they rap together, they play games, they make jokes, but they are also able to hold a rifle and shoot and kill like the killers they are. Fukunaga portrays these children following their commanders like they are following their teachers, killing like they are doing their school assignments, and getting praises and rewards exactly like what a good student would. Even if the cause is worthy, that doesn’t change the fact that these children have been deprived of their most important possession: the right to be children. So many bullets they have fired, so many deaths they have witnessed, so much blood was on their hands that they have become soldiers before they become adults. And the cause is seldom worthy.
Agu’s first kill is forced on him by the Commandant: a machete is placed in his hand and the order for him to behead an unarmed and unrobed man is given. It’s like chopping wood, he is told, you lift up high, and then you come down. That’s exactly what he does, and this is the first of the many graphic scenes in the film. Fukunaga is far from reluctant when it comes to the blood; the scene even switches to the point of view of Agu’s victim, seeing machetes coming down on him repeatedly as the redness blurs his vision. Red is the prominent color in the film; there is a scene where the frames are literally soaked with it, everything turning red in Agu’s eyes as he walked among the casualties of war. “God… I have killed a man. It is the worst sin… but I’m knowing too, it is the right thing to be doing,” Agu whispers to himself after his first kill, and although this action does not necessarily signify his downfall, not yet, it seals his fate forever as a combatant, someone who has had the taste of blood and therefore could not ever turn back.
There is something about war that is so enchanting to these children; the blood, the war chants, the ideologies, the adrenaline pumping in their veins the moment they put their fingers on the trigger. Yet war is also scary, also mysterious, so strange and traumatic and noisy and deafeningly silent. This is why Fukunaga decides not to portray war as simply a hell through these children’s eyes; war is hell, but that’s not the half of it, in the word of novelist Tim O’ Brian, “because war is also mystery and terror and adventure and courage and discovery and holiness and pity and despair and longing and love. War is nasty; war is fun. War is thrilling; war is drudgery.” (*) War is the bullets that eat everything and make everyone bleed. War is the catching of the sun in the palm of your hands and squeezing out all its light, so that eternal darkness reigns and all the terrible things we do remain unseen. War makes you a man, war makes you dead, war turns you into a beast, living nowhere and everywhere because the battlefield is nowhere and everywhere. All these chaotic emotions and senses are reflected in Agu’s eyes, and he takes them all in with both eagerness and reluctance, comparing it with what he had known in his childhood. “I am now knowing the smell of the dead,” he observed. “They are sweet like sugarcane and rotten like palm wine. And when they stay in the sun, they are growing plump like brown mangoes.”
Watching Beasts of No Nation is a difficult and uncomfortable experience. Not only because we know that we are watching child soldiers fighting for an unjust cause, but also because we know we are seeing first-hand the loss of war. I could not stress this more, as all the suffering, the hurt and trauma that the characters in the film have to endure all point to this. Despite its many faces, what it eventually comes down to in war is loss, and the loss of innocence is only the beginning. A gripping and poignant film that is definitely not for everyone, such is Beasts of No Nation.
“We are just like wild animals now, with no place to be going.”
(*) O’Brien, T. (2009). “How to tell a true war story”. In The Things They Carried. Page 80. Houghton Mifflin (Trade).
Image courtesy: Netflix