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Child Soldiers – “Beasts of No Nation” book review

UPDATE: The following is a review of both the movie and the book, “Beasts of No Nation.” The first portion, the movie review does not contain spoilers. Exercise caution in reading the book synopsis.

The direct to Netflix film, Beasts of No Nation, is visually stunning, imminently believable, violent, warm, touching, and for mature audiences often layered and jumbled together. While the movie is bloody and violent, it is not gratuitous considering its subject matter. However, we warn you that the movie is not always easy to watch, nor the book easy to read. However, in my opinion, the movie (and book) leave you feeling that the world is a beautiful place and people are special and unique and that war and violence destroy this individuality and potential, disrupting even the best, and brightest, of characters.

One of the strengths of the movie is the touching family scenes, and the memorable scene were the kids try to “sell” their “imagination TV” (See clip below). These types of scenes frame our story and cause us to care for this child and his country. We are never told which country in West Africa the author had in mind, since the subject matter is “Beasts of No Nation,” however I suspect it may be based on Sierra Leone. The movie was filmed in Ghana, West Africa and the landscapes and visuals are stunningly beautiful. It makes you wonder “what could be,” if these nations has the right opportunity, and I am glad that Ghana itself has made so much progress in the last years regarding their economy, entrepreneurial business class, and living conditions. So overall, while the film is about child soldiers and horror and loss of innocence, the movie is “positive” in affirming life, and creativity, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Idris Elba, as the “Commander” does an amazing job of being a character who is both charismatic and “likable,” as well as evil and complicated. I can rarely remember seeing as nuanced a character, especially one who is cast as both a lead and a villian. Likewise, Abraham Attah does a good job as our lead character, Agu. We are immediately swept up in his carefree life, his friends and childhood games. The only semi-dissatisfying part of the movie in my opinion was the ending which felt like a slight letdown. I was not given enough time or opportunity to process (with the character) the experiences and horrors that he went through.

As mentioned, this is a film about child soldiers, and the chaos and meaninglessness of war in Africa. The film does a good job of showing how children are transformed by war and fighting, whether in Chechnya, Syria, Southeast Asia or Africa. In that sense, the story is universal and one should not feel as if Africa has any corner on the use of child soldiers in conflict. Like Agu and his family, we are told very little as to the causes of the war and the instability which wrecks Agu’s family village. In that sense, the book and movie are not written as historical fiction, but as the story of how war effects one small corner of the world and one small family.

Rated R or “mature” due to its theme and blood, the film has no nudity and little cussing. There are a few occasions where sex is implied, as well as prostitution, and at least one occasion where the Commander tells his soldiers about women and makes reference to how they affect him physically. My feeling was that this telling was done somewhat tastefully given the subject matter and the crudity of the subject matter and war in general. Obviously we cannot expect the Commander to be leading a Sunday School lecture, nor does he. The violence itself, which is prominently featured, largely happens off camera, happens from a distance, or from the back, and uses various angles and storytelling to spare us the gore and horror the story has to tell. Even the “child at peril” theme (which is a constant throughout) is handled tastefully for a movie with this subject matter.

Along with “Blood Diamonds” and maybe “Blackhawk Down,” few movies create the claustrophobic feeling of chaos and anxiety, as does “Beasts of No Nation.” If you want to gain a heart of understanding for the importance of working to end child enslavement and the use of child soldiers, this is the movie.

If you are one who doesn’t get through many books or have a long list of books to read, or want added motivation to pick up and read the novel by Uzodinma Iweala, this is the movie.

If you want to see what good actors, even little known actors can do with a difficult subject matter and true feeling/acting, this is the movie. While it was disturbing, it also left you believing that there should be better things for people caught in these tragedies and that we should all work harder to help create more stable nations and to keep these kinds of atrocities from happening. In that sense, the movie itself is uplifting and encouraging rather than depressing or simply sad. And that is the best endorsement I could give “Beasts of No Nation.”

 


 

Book Review: Beasts of No Nation (P.S.), Publisher: Harper Perennial

This short fictional book on child soldiers is told as a first-person narrative in a child’s (African) Pidgin-English patois. In less than 150 pages, Agu talks about life before the war, how he is captured, taught to kill, and his internal life (“I am not a bad boy.”). He recounts saying “prayers” before raiding a village and killing the inhabitants, abuse, starvation, and ultimately how war and civil unrest tears apart the fabric of a nation, and makes his country uninhabitable.

As the book progresses, the “Commander” leads the army to his city, and describes it to his “soldiers” in glowing terms. “Fine past any other town, this place is like the paradise they are always talking about in the Bible” full of life and color and food and anything you want to buy. But once Agu and the others enter the town, the effect of the civil war is obvious: Refuse is everywhere, including decaying corpses. “The houses which look fine from far away, are not looking fine anymore close up.” Full of bullet holes, and craters where homes once stood due to air attacks and bombs. The market is empty. The whole place is just empty.

Just like the town, the Commander and his guerrillas are slowing dying, starving, and falling apart mentally and physically – Finally finding themselves sleeping off the side of the road in rain-filled gutters and eating bugs in order to hide from opposition forces seeking to destroy them.

The book is believably told from the eyes of a child, including the horrors associated with war and this makes the book difficult to read at times, due to its explicit, child-like explanations of sexual abuse, murder, and other adult themes.

How does a good little boy, one who is exceptionally bright and hopes to become a doctor or engineer; who goes to church and loves reading the Bible; be changed so that he will kill others, even women and children? The book tries to explain this psychological conflict as it effects a child who does not want to die, and is therefore forced to do unspeakable acts. “Somebody who is having life like I am having and fearing God the whole time.”

 

Unfortunately, though the story itself is fictional, it was written based on the many true accounts of child soldiers in Africa. The author, Uzodinma Iweala, first started writing the book after seeing an article on the subject in Newsweek Magazine.

 


 

It is estimated that there are up to 120,000 child soldiers (those under 15) fighting in Africa, which is about 40% of the total estimated worldwide.

In 2014, in the Central African Republic the UN estimates that 6,000-10,000 children as young as 8 years old were involved in the ongoing conflict, with all parties to the conflict recruiting children.

In 2014, in South Sudan, 9,000 children have been forced t fight on both sides of the conflict.

In 2014, in Liberia, they are estimates of between 15,000-38,000 child soldiers.

In 2014, the latest report has Militant Islamic Boko Haram training child soldiers in Nigeria.

Unfortunately, UNICEF reports that joining an army may be the only way for some of these children to survive. And when they do not volunteer, they are often recruited forcibly after their parents are killed or forced to flee. ( http://www.unicef.org/sowc96/2csoldrs.htm)

Human Right Watch has an article where you can learn more about Children Soldiers
and a download: Coercion and Intimidation of Child Soldiers to Participate in Violence (.PDF)
as well as their 26th annual World Report (659-pages) which summarizes human rights conditions in more than 90 countries and territories worldwide in 2015. It reflects extensive investigative work that Human Rights Watch staff conducted during the year, often in close partnership with domestic human rights activists.
Get it free at http://reliefweb.int/report/world/world-report-2016-events-2015.

Newsweek had a report on child soldiers (focusing on Liberia) in 2013.

TIME magazine has also published stories on the problem in multiple issues in the past.

Want to help? Here are some organizations doing something to free children/rehabilitate child soldiers:

http://www.child-soldiers.org/theme_reader.php
http://www.warchild.org.uk/
http://www.worldvision.org/about-us/media-center/child-soldiers
http://www.savethechildren.org

 


 

The book, Beasts of No Nation and its author have been awarded Best Book of the Year by TIME, People magazine, Slate, Entertainment Weekly and New York Magazine. Winner of the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Sue Kaufman Prize for First Fiction from the Academy of Arts and Letters, the New York Public Library Young Lions 2006 Fiction Award, and the 2006 John Llewellyn Rhys Prize.
In 2007, the author was also selected as one of Granta’s Best Young American Novelists.

 


 

Beasts of No Nation has been released as a movie, both in theaters and on NetFlix: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VlgI-26R5fw 

You can see more customer reviews, as well as purchase the book here.

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