In Idris Elba and Cory Fukunaga’s new film, Beasts of No Nation, the story of a child soldier is beautifully portrayed on Netflix’s silver screen. The viewer sadly watches as the main character, Agu, is manipulated into becoming a child soldier after he loses his family in a militia attack in his home town. While this film very accurately depicts the horrific events that precede the making of a child soldier, and the sometimes unwatchable events that occur to child soldiers, the film lacks a critical voice against the use of child soldiers.
The viewer follows Agu, as he narrowly escapes death, only to fall into the hands of a rebel battalion of child soldiers, led by a father figure played by Idris. We see the ways in which Agu is actually saved by these rebels, and learns the bond of brotherhood, friendship, and fatherhood from his commander. While the violent scenes show that the child soldiers endure more than anyone would ever wish upon a child, their status as child soldiers is never blatantly criticized in the ways one would wish. The battalion is shown sticking together, providing a family and a support system for these orphans, and although many of them fall victim to violence from their fighting, they find a home within the battalion that they had lost from the violence before. It seems that this film almost applauds the ways in which a child soldier who was an orphan before, can find a home again as a child soldier in a battalion.
Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian Senator and former commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, has experience with going against these child soldier militias, and has headed his own organization that aims to stop the recruitment of child soldiers. In his review of the film, he states that, “It’s the classic Blood Diamond story of disaster in Africa,” he said, having seen the film. “But it doesn’t give an analysis of the situation. There was a lot missing”. It seems that Dallaire brings up the point that critiques of the film are refraining from saying, that this film does not tell the whole story of what the child soldier problem means to the child, and to the nations using them.
One problem is that the film is set in an unnamed African country, the root of the issues in the movie are nameless. What is the purpose of leaving an entire country nameless, what does that add to the critique? It rather deducts from the viewer’s ability to relate to the conflict and to the film’s overall moral, because it makes it less than human. Another problem is that we see the mother escape, yet where does she go the rest of the film? Does she not look for her son, or try to seek help in any way? We never find out, because she just disappears, as if we are being told by the makers of the film to assume she just dies. What about the deeper psychological issues underlying the manipulation of child soldiers in their recruitment? We see Agu smiling and falling in line as one of the gang, but we don’t see as many break downs of understanding of loss of innocence as we should. There is a scene where the commander makes Agu execute an innocent engineer, and the man seeks out the understanding and sentiments of Agu, yet, Agu strikes him down the middle of his skull, barely killing him, forcing the rest of the child soldiers to finish what he started. Most of them cheer that Agu finally killed, and we do not later see much regret or mental breaking down from Agu. Maybe that was a cinematic choice to show the ways in which Agu internalizes his pain to appear strong on the outside, but it creates a story that just brushes the surface of a critique of child soldiers, rather than totally showing how mind controlling and detrimental it can be to children.
Another point Lt. Gen Romeo Dallaire makes is that the use of child soldiers is occurring world wide, not just in a nameless African country. On War Child, a site dedicated to ending child soldiers, they state that, “there are around 250,000 child soldiers worldwide”, including India, Colombia, Thailand and Burma. While Beasts of No Nation does the Netflix watching populations a favor by broadening their perspectives to the realities of what is happening in the world, it just does not highlight some of the deeper problems with the use of child soldiers, and does not provide a truly critical film against child soldiers. Instead, it shines a very shallow light on the overview of one child in a nameless African country in a nameless war. I agree with the critics that the film should have harnessed the power if it’s status in Netflix and it’s position in current media to show a deeper analysis of child soldiers. They should have dived deeper into the mental effects child soldiers have from war, and the negative consequences nations suffer from the use of child soldiers overall.