In The Midst Of War, A Boy Becomes A Soldier In 'Beasts Of No Nation'

In The Midst Of War, A Boy Becomes A Soldier In 'Beasts Of No Nation'

3:38pm Oct 16, 2015
Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in the Netflix original film Beasts of No Nation.
Idris Elba and Abraham Attah in the Netflix original film <em>Beasts of No Nation.</em>
Courtesy Netflix

The transformation of a young boy protected from war into a child soldier perpetrating war is at the center of the new film Beasts of No Nation.

The boy — named Agu — lives in an unnamed African country. He loses his family and his world when government troops hunting down rebels destroy his village. Agu escapes into the forest, only to be recruited into the rebel cause: A battalion of child soldiers. For them, survival depends on the brutal acts they're ordered to carry out.

Agu is played by first-time actor Abraham Attah, alongside Idris Elba as the ruthless commandant. Together, commandant and child soldier become the beasts of no nation — a detail from the novel of the same name that director Cary Fukunaga felt was important to preserve.

"I think in not naming a country, you're able to focus on the human story without spending too much time on any sort of history or academic lesson on a certain country in that conflict," Fukunaga tells NPR's Renee Montagne. "Because what all these wars have in common is the human casualties."


Interview Highlights

On depicting Agu's life before war destroys his village

In script development process, usually the first act is the thing that everyone's saying you need to cut down on. For better or for worse, I like to spend a lot of time in the beginning of stories — getting to know not only the characters, but the people around them and also the world they're coming from. A lot of where they come from might seem like foreign or exotic places, but the more time you spend there, you realize they're pretty much just like us in terms of what they want out of life. And it's important to sort of break down the walls of that exoticism. Not just the minimal sort of "here's his parents, here's his life, move on with the narrative" sort of structure.

On Agu's transformation from innocent boy to obedient soldier

What I demonstrate in this film is not at all different from what happens in rebel groups, in wars, any war that basically indoctrinates children to becoming fighters and killers. And it's a pretty quick process. Even when we were casting the film, we spent some time in Sierra Leone with some former combatants, some of whom were child soldiers, and some of whom were commanders. And some kids were watching us as we were doing some of the castings, and I asked them, "How quickly could you turn these kids into soldiers?" And he says, "Watch me. Give me 15 minutes." And they took these kids and got them into marching order, had them learn some chants, and he said, "I could probably put these kids into combat in a couple more hours if I had to."

On first-world peacekeeping efforts

The peacekeeping force can't always intervene — or won't intervene. And so these terrible atrocities take place under the watching eye of the first world. And it's just a fact of these sorts of conflicts: the impotence, sometimes, of the first and second world to do anything about it.

On threads of hope and Agu's bond with another boy soldier

The line [Agu] walks from descending into someone without any empathy at all and someone who still holds on to some part of his humanity is depicted by his ability to maintain a loving and protective relationship. In this case, it's his friend Strika. I think that's an important element just in terms of showing that he hasn't completely gone to the other side.

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Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

The transformation of a young boy protected from war into a child soldier perpetrating war is at the center of the new film "Beasts Of No Nation." Agu lives in an unnamed African country. He looses his family and his world when government troops hunting down rebels destroy his village. He escapes into the forest, only to be recruited into the rebel cause - into a ruthless battalion of child soldiers. Their survival depends on the brutal acts they carry out. Agu is played by first time actor Abraham Attah, alongside the actor Idris Elba, well known for lead roles in "The Wire" and "Mandela." Together, the commandant and the boy soldier become beasts of no nation. Director Cary Fukunaga joined us from London.

CARY FUKUNAGA: I think in not naming a country, you're able to focus on the human story without spending too much time on any sort of history or academic lesson on a certain country in that conflict because what all these wars have in common is the human casualties. I mean, just innocence lost, families torn apart, education taken away or completely arrested for years, forever. It's just - it's mainly loss.

MONTAGNE: A fair amount of time is spent early on in the details his - what would have been his real life - his happy life - pranking his older brother and burping at the dinner table - the things little boys do - who he was before all these things happened to him.

FUKUNAGA: You know, in script development process, usually the first act is the thing that everyone's saying you need to cut down on. For better or for worse, I like to spend a lot of time in the beginning of stories, getting to know not only the characters, but the people around them and also the world they're coming from. A lot of where they come from might seem like foreign or exotic places. But the more time you spend there, you realize they're pretty much just like us in terms of what they want out of life. And it's important to sort of break down the walls of that exoticism - not just the minimal sort of - here's his parents, here's his life, move on with the narrative structure.

MONTAGNE: I want to play a clip for our listeners. When the war, in the form of government troops, does suddenly come to the village, Agu falls into the hands of the commandant. And at this moment in the film that we're going to hear, his lieutenant wonders what to do with Agu, who's just - they've just found.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEASTS OF NO NATION")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) He's just a boy.

IDRIS ELBA: (As Commandant) A boy? A boy is nothing. A boy is harmless?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Small Boy Unit Soldiers) Harmless - no, sir.

ELBA: (As Commandant) Does a boy have two eyes to see?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTORS: (As Small Boy Unit Soldiers) Two eyes, sir.

ELBA: (As Commandant) A boy has hands to strangle and fingers to pull triggers. Why are you saying a boy is nothing? A boy is very, very dangerous. You understand me? Very dangerous, you understand?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, sir.

ELBA: (As Commandant) Huh?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Yes, sir.

MONTAGNE: It's very chilling. Abraham Attah, who plays Agu - he's playing a nice kid in the beginning, with a teacher for a father, a loving mother. For a child like him, people might wonder how could he be transformed into a vicious killer? Like at one point, he brings down a machete on the head of a driver as that man is begging for his life.

FUKUNAGA: What I demonstrate in this film is not at all different from what happens in rebel groups and in wars - any war that basically indoctrinates children to becoming fighters and killers. And it's a pretty quick process. Even when we were casting the film, we spent some time in Sierra Leone with some former combatants, some of who were child soldiers and some of whom were commanders. And some kids were watching us as we were doing some of the castings. And I asked them, how quickly could you turn these kids into soldiers? He says, watch me. Give me 15 minutes. And they took these kids and got them into marching order, had them learn some chants. And he said, I could probably put the kids into combat in a couple more hours if I had to.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BEASTS OF NO NATION")

ABRAHAM ATTAH: (As Agu) I am happy to be following you, sir.

ELBA: (As Commandant) That is good because there is no learning how to be leading. Some people are born to be leaders, others are born to be followers, and others are just waiting to be dying.

ATTAH: (As Agu) I'm a good follower, sir

ELBA: (As Commandant) Agu, you are different. You are reminded me of when I was a small boy. That is how I know you are going to be a leader.

MONTAGNE: Fatherly and charismatic, the commandant protects his troops, but also prays on them. And the boys are given drugs, like what they call brown-brown, a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. In one scene, as they head into battle, Agu suddenly sees the lush green grass around him turn a psychedelic pink. Running alongside him - a band of ghostly warriors in a full war paint and elaborate masks, some in the skins of wild things. It's scary and also strangely beautiful.

FUKUNAGA: In my mind, it's an effect of the drugs, but it was also a nod to the kind of tales he would have grown up with hearing, you know, from his village and the elders. And the whole idea of transformation - especially shape shifting and sort of famous hunters turning into animals - is a long tradition in the sense that the killing that they're doing is starting to have no real purpose. When he sees those hunters, to me they're all sort of wearing different animals that are predators. It's a sort of hallucination. At the same time, it's a mirror of themselves.

MONTAGNE: Well, there is a very brief moment in the film. It's a van - looks like a United Nations van - driving by as these armed young men in the commandant's, you know, battalion are marching off to massacre a village. A photographer - you can just barely see him - is in there, snapping a photo. There's a woman in there. She might be a journalist or perhaps some sort of an observer. What did you mean to convey in that scene?

FUKUNAGA: The peacekeeping force can't always intervene or won't intervene, and so these terrible atrocities take place under the watching eye of the first world. And it's just a fact of these sorts of conflicts - the impotence sometimes of the first and second world to do anything about it.

MONTAGNE: At times, Agu's story is almost unbearable to watch - such a little boy forced to do such terrible things. But woven through all of these moments are bright threads of hope, like Agu's bond with another boy soldier.

FUKUNAGA: The line he walks from descending into someone without any empathy at all and someone who still holds on to some part of his humanity is depicted by his ability to maintain a loving and protective relationship. In this case, it's his friend Strika. I think that's an important element, just in terms of showing that he hasn't completely gone to the other side.

MONTAGNE: The movie is "Beasts Of No Nation," directed and written by Cary Fukunaga, in theaters and on Netflix today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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