Agu, played by Abraham Attah, is a child soldier. He is separated from his family and bears witness to the brutal deaths of his older brother and father, who die after groundless allegations of treason. Agu escapes into the bush, alone, and becomes the newest recruit in an unnamed commander’s young battalion, where he is trained to ruthlessly kill.
This is the story of a war-torn Africa told in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel “Beasts of No Nation” on Netflix. The film is as powerful as it is disturbing, with amazing performances and high points that will leave any audience member gasping.
Devastation cannot begin to describe the horrors that unfold as rebels shatter the fragile peace of Agu’s village. War has closed the schools and Agu’s father, once a passionate teacher, is busy with refugees pouring in from nearby villages. In these first 10 minutes, we see a mischievous Agu and friends with nothing else to do but salvage old TV sets or block roads to collect false tolls for food.
It’s only in the beginning that we see the humanity of an African village. Agu and his older teenage brother have a typical sibling rivalry. The older brother has a crush on a local girl, listens to odd music and obsesses over his muscles. Young Agu does not understand, but he and his brother have a bond that manifests when the two laugh over funny faces they make under flashlights at night as their mother argues against their father’s resolve to stay and fight against the invading rebels.
In the chaos that ensues, the father pleads to have his family transported away from the tumult, but they will only take women and babies. The scene culminates in the heartbreaking words of Agu’s mother as she franticly says her farewells: “Remember to pray to God everyday.”
Agu then runs after the vehicle in vain and it isn’t long before the deaths of his brother and father find him foraging for food in the African wilderness.
The narrative is told partly by Agu himself, whose ethereal voice retells the story in the few quiet scenes within the film.
“God. When I am closing my eyes, I am seeing the rainy season in my village. You can be finding the ground is washing away beneath your feet. Nothing is ever for sure and everything is always changing,” Agu says.
Alone and sick from eating toxic leaves, Agu is found by a rebel commander (Idris Elba) who goes by the name “Commandant”, a charismatic, thundering warlord who does more than just recruit boys to rape and pillage enemy villages.
In an especially powerful speech, the commander says, “A boy is harmless? Does a boy have two eyes to see? A boy has hands to strangle and fingers to pull triggers. Why you say a boy is nothing?”
The commander is a manipulative monster whose grasp on the children is as physical as it is mental. He convinces his battalion of child soldiers that this is a war to assert themselves against those who have destroyed their families. He forces Agu to kill and seduces him with the promise of a better life.
Agu soon realizes the horrors of war.
“I am now knowing the smell of the dead. They are sweet like sugarcane and rotten like palm wine and when they stay in the sun, they are going plump like brown mangoes,” he says.
As he travels down a river of blood, with red earth on either side, there is hopelessness akin to an apocalyptic world and we are left wondering what will happen in this war-torn land.
As he recalls a life before war, Agu remembers a family he will never see again.
“They loved me,” he says.
Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.