.innocence lost – a note on Beasts of No Nation

Warning: This Article Contains Spoilers.

Beasts of No Nation has been the first film to bring tears to my eyes in a while.

Sidebar:

And no, it’s not unmanly or “pussy” to cry, to feel emotions. So STFU.

A sad film, especially a film that makes you sad, is a great film. It’s easy to overlook the profundity of this statement because of its simplicity. You may be thinking to yourself,

“of course, a sad film will make me sad”.

But that’s not a given, just like it’s not a given that a sad song will make you sad.

Take Kendrick Lamar’s Swimming Pools for example. The track at the time was an instant hit, with its pitched down vocals and highly suggestive chorus. The song, as I take it to mean, is about substance abuse (a shared theme between the song and the film):

“I grew up around people living their life in bottles,” Kendrick starts.

Stills from Lamar’s music video

But people don’t listen to the lyrics of the whole song, the song didn’t make a lot of people sad, and didn’t ask most people to look into the meaning and to feel the emotions of being surrounded by a culture of self-destruction. Instead, the song would find itself played in clubs, or in cars on the way to clubs-and people would sing along blindly with their chest.

“Headshot”, we used to bellow.

“Sit down,”

“Stand up”

“Faded”

Let the choir say: Faded.

For whatever reason, people were excited when this song came on. It was even a song that played at parties. A song to put on when your friends came over. But it didn’t make you sad.

Not at first anyway…and how a song ages to become something that makes you think deep things is a question for another blog. Maybe even a psychologist.

But the fact is, it didn’t convey the emotion of sadness well enough for a lot of us. Maybe it was the video, with party scenes of with young men and women looking fresh to death, dripped up and swagged down.

Beasts of No Nation did not suffer from this ailment.

The film is a carefully woven tragedy about the life of Twi-speaking Agu. He is probably no younger than 12 years, when he is separated from his family after a rebel army invade and pillage his town in an unnamed country. In his attempt to escape he witnesses

Subsequently, he is forced forced to serve in the rebel army and is initiated by executing one of their captives.

What follows is his rebirth in a total state of conflict. Flying bullets and mangled, lifeless bodies replace a life of relative glee and simplicity.

His story, told through tints of murky, earthly colours and covers a range of themes such as: life in rural, impoverished areas, the cost of war and the joys of brotherhood. During his time in the rebel army, amongst other horrors he is molested, and also becomes a witness and accomplice to murder and rape.

All before writing IGCSE’s.

I use humour as a coping mechanism. Sue me.

What made the film so enthralling for me was how I felt the degrading state of Agu’s life and mind.

Really, his situation went from bleak but alright, to bad to worse, to horrific. Yet there is a silverlining-ish in it all and just like the beginning, it is bleak but alright. Going full circle; and from the perspective of a student of cinema, I enjoyed that…the story “tied up”, as it were.

This boy was hurt more than any pain death could bring. At least when something kills you, you don’t need to tolerate it anymore. However, Agu lived with that trauma.

Which always felt very real. The film’s sound design was beautifully impactful. The rustling of grass and trickling of water, gunshots and explosions..and helicopters hovering above and the rest..it was all exquisite.

Sound heightens the immersion we experience in films..and yet, despite the very real predicaments taking place. We ask ourselves:

“Did that really happen?”

The answer is no.

In Beasts of No Nation, the story isn’t particularly based on true events but it certainly feels like it. Rather, the narrative reflects very harsh realities as far as child soldiers are being used all over the world, in every continent except North America. With Africa maintaining nearly 40% of that estimate. The lesson here being that Agu’s story isn’t far from reality.

The point of this is the story didn’t need to rely on massive, expensive computer generated effects to make me believe its truth. The truth was staring at you, and because the film was narrated by Agu himself, the truth spoke to you. And it pained my ears every time, unlike Kendrick’s song. Moreover, keep in mind that Agu spoke with a Ghanaian accent, and because I am Ghanaian, this planted a seed of familiarity in my mind and rooted me more deeply into his traumas as he recounted them.

This was not a review of the film, nor is it an invitation to watch the film. My intention in writing this, is to tell you about the negative emotions I felt when I watched this movie. It did not make me want to laugh, or smile. It made me tear up. It put me in a world far from my own, and asked me to feel emotions completely removed from my own. The film did a terrific job of asking me to leave any hopes I had for Agu and his people ever returning to their peaceful lives.

Furthermore, the movie did a fantastic job of leaving little for interpretation. It wasn’t like one of those abstract, artsy films. No dear reader, this film laid out a story in front of you with nothing but the facts as they were. Sure, it hinted towards things here and there but the main messages of the film, the main emotions and experiences running through out, were left bare and naked without any floss, without any beautification; and in that my heart wept for a boy I would never meet.

For his losses that were only so real.

For his fractured childhood compromised like bullet riddled buildings.

K.

All images are stills from the original motion picture.