The title refers to child soldiers who are orphaned, forced to participate in brutal warfare and then are made into refugees. “No Nation” might also be a reference to the idea in general of belonging, not necessarily to the confines of political borders on a continent like Africa but to the confines usually created by a loving family.
Abraham Atta in his debut film stars as Agu, a young boy between the ages of 9 or 12. He lives in a war-torn country where rebels, known as NDF, are fighting the country’s army. Agu’s village becomes the site of a battle where the army raids. His mother and baby siblings are able to escape, but Agu, his brother, father and granddad have to stay.
When the battle takes a drastic turn, Agu is forced to flee all by himself. A battalion for the NDF find Agu. The leader of that NDF battalion is named Commandant. He’s played by Idris Elba (The Wire and Luthor). The Commandant takes Agu under his wing and begins to train Agu to become a child soldier just like so many in the battalion.
In a very short amount of time, Agu transforms from a happy-go-lucky, bright and fun boy to a hardened, sad and cynical, young man. I first remember seeing an African child soldier in the film Blood Diamond (2006). However, it was done strikingly better in War Witch (2013). War Witch focuses on a young girl who is recruited to be a child soldier. Despite being a girl, that film was braver at going down certain roads that this film won’t.
Written and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, this film hints at roads that stay hinted. He never goes down them fully. Those roads are ones of a sexual nature. Those roads include child molestation or child sex abuse and outright rape.
Unless I’m reading more into this than what’s there, it’s suggested that the Commandant is sexually abusing the boys whom he’s molding into child soldiers, including Agu. Yet, after it’s suggested, it’s a topic never addressed again. In a later scene, we see an out-and-out rape. One of the NDF rebels rapes a mother who is hiding in a house that they have invaded. Yet, after the rape occurs, it’s a topic never addressed again.
Sexual trauma or the ramification of sexual trauma is something that this film doesn’t want to delve, mainly because it involves children and is mostly told from a child’s point-of-view. Therefore, it’s a wonder why it’s included in the story at all. Most likely for the shock value, or being faithful to the book perhaps.
The journey stays concentrated on the killing aspects. Agu becomes a witness to killings. He then participates in killings until finally he pulls back, making the choice to stop and walk away from the killings. The question is if the parameters provided here are enough to make Agu’s journey believable.
One of the parameters is obvious. Agu loses everything, including his entire family, and has no where else to go at least in his mind. He has no immediate awareness of the United Nations, which do become a saving grace. At first, Agu seems like a prisoner, but the Commandant makes the argument that Agu should become a child soldier if only to get revenge on those who killed his family.
There is a scene where Agu is pushed to get his revenge by committing his first murder in a scene that mimicks a similar moment between Brad Pitt and Logan Lerman in Fury (2014). The Commandant yells at Agu and practically bullies him into murdering a man very violently. It’s also similar to a scene in War Witch, but somehow less intimate and more gory.
Another parameter is that Agu can have fun. There is a sequence that makes the Commandant’s boys attacking feel almost celebratory. It’s energetic, no fear and vibrant in a way. It’s so brazen, bold and freeing that the boys march down a conquered, bullet-ridden street as if they were in a parade. One of Commandant’s older soldiers even marches totally nude, his massive genitalia swinging proudly and with no shame.
The final parameter is taking the luster or grandeur of the Commandant out of everyone’s eyes. Instead of a towering and all-powerful figure, the Commandant is brought down a peg. He has to give up his power due to political reasons. He’s made to wait on a couch. He’s made to look petty and jealous. Elba gives a great performance, as we watch this deconstruction of his character. If Elba gets an Oscar nomination for this, it would be completely understood.
However, Fukunaga who was his own Director of Photography is the one who deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Cinematography. The visuals that Fukunaga crafts here are nothing short of incredible. There’s weird, Terrence Malick, whispered narration, but his visuals aren’t strictly Malick-inspired, despite characters playing in tall grass.
Fukunaga utilizes his now, signature camera-technique of the long, continuous take. The house invasion, which leads to the rape of the mother, as well as other atrocities to girls, is that long, continuous take. The technique makes the scene feel more visceral, more real. Fukunaga also incorporates a scene that’s almost ripped from The Dark Knight in terms of its use of bombs and characters walking away in an almost comedic fashion.
The most amazing shot is when Fukunaga tracks Agu as he treads through a trench, almost as if he’s been totally transported into a World War I film, but the walls are like red clay. It’s wet and flooded. Agu is wearing a hard hat and is smoking a cigarette. It’s an absolutely, knock-out image that conveys so much of how this little boy has changed and grown.
The ending is a bit hollow. Agu interacts with other child soldiers and we’re led to believe that these other child soldiers are of any consequence. Unfortunately, Fukunaga doesn’t do a good job of developing these other child soldiers. Aside from one boy named Strika, played by Emmanuel Nii Adom Quaye, who is mute, we never get to know the other child soldiers, certainly not their names, so there isn’t enough that makes Agu’s interactions with them at the end resonate much.
Four Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains graphic nudity and violence.
Running Time: 2 hrs. and 17 mins.
Available on Netflix Watch Instant.