Ezra is the first film to give an African perspective on the disturbing phenomenon of abducting child soldiers into the continent's recent civil wars. Ezra is structured around the ... See full summary »
Ezra is the first film to give an African perspective on the disturbing phenomenon of abducting child soldiers into the continent's recent civil wars. Ezra is structured around the week-long questioning of a 16 year old boy, Ezra, before a version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions, created in Sierra Leone in 2002 in the wake of its decade long civil war. This hearing is then inter-cut with chronological flashbacks to pivotal moments during Ezra's ten years in the rebel faction which made him who he is. Written by
Mamoudu Turay Kamara is brooding, charismatic and stylish as Ezra, a sixteen-year-old trained killing machine who has escaped from "The Brotherhood," the rebel army in what is obviously Sierra Leone, though not named here. He is an innocent boy of nine in a prologue when the rebels overrun his school and kidnap him. Ezra is a Sierra Leone civil war story told, unlike Edward Zwick's effective but Euro-centric 'Blood Diamond,' entirely from the African point of view and with Africans in all the main roles. Its strongest point is probably its authentic look. The director is a Nigerian who lives in the UK.
In the frame-story of the film, Ezra stands before a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (on the South African pattern) headed by American Mac Mondale (Richard Gant) and his sister Onitcha (Mariame N'Diaye), though she has had her tongue cut out, bears witness that he was present in an attack on the family village in which their own parents were killed and may even have been the one who killed them. Before such attacks, including this one, the boy soldiers are injected by their superiors with amphetamines, so they can fight for four days, killing heedlessly, in a state of wild excitement and with no shred of a moral sense. After two days if they don't eat, Ezra says, they hallucinate and see demons all around them. After many such experiences the boys develop protective amnesia. The Commission isn't a trial, but Mac Mondale wants Ezra to confess to crimes. He won't. He denies any memory of them.
In its opening passage about the young kidnapped Ezra the film sketches in how the new recruits are indoctrinated, motivated by fear, and brainwashed to forget their families and live for the cause, worshiping their AK-47's. "No hand, no vote" was the rule of the raids: villagers' hands were cut off to frighten them from voting. Ezra has plenty of trauma, but this atrocity is depicted more graphically in 'Blood Diamond.' A surprise and shock: to find that there are girl soldiers too. One Ezra meets up with, Mariam (Mamusu Kallon), becomes the mother of his child. While he can't remember how to read, she comes from a Maoist intellectual journalist father and joined up out of conviction.
Ezra eventually leaves "the Brotherhood" with others, including Mariam, in protest because they are not being fed properly. We also get glimpses of the subject of Blood Diamond, the whites who trade weapons and also drugs for diamonds, the glittering but tainted fruits of this warfare.
It's important to have this material in a film with authentic settings and actors and from the boy soldier's point of view. The film points out at the end that there are about 300,000 child soldiers fighting on the globe, 120,000 of them in Africa.
'Ezra' is consistent in its convincing look, but otherwise marred by some very serious flaws. The framework of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is its first undoing, because it leads the screenplay into a chaotic series of flashbacks whose chronology is impossible to follow; some reviewers have commented that their order is as blasted as Ezra's drug-addled and traumatized mind. And in the switching back and forth between the flashbacks and the Commission proceedings, the latter are increasingly overwhelmed by the war drama and begin to seem anticlimactic.
The chronology of the various flashbacks becomes even more confusing as Ezra's escape from the Brotherhood gets mixed in with his earlier service, and the rhythm of the story is hobbled. This is one reason why things are confusing. Equally damaging to the natural flow is the fact that all characters speak English rather than whatever they might actually have spoken in individual scenes (Sierra Leone's official language is English but there are 24 native tongues). And to make things worse the voices are post-dubbed, so they're noticeably out of sink. Even Mamoudu Turay Kamara often delivers his English lines in a stilted manner, and you can see the mouths moving before the voices come out. In a few scenes the dialogue is barely comprehensible.
Given how sketchy the story becomes in this treatment, it would be better to read one of several books on the subject of boy soldiers in Africa, notably Ismael Beah's 'A Long Way Gone: Memories of a Boy Soldier' (Feb. 2007), which presents the experience eloquently and in more detail, though even Beah's memories are not always completely reliable, for the same reason that Ezra's are absent: protective amnesia and damaged recall due to drugs and stress.
'Ezra' was introduced at Sundance 15 months ago where it was nominated for the Grand Jury prize; received several awards in Africa, and has been in limited US release since February. Given these facts and the film's inherent weaknesses, the decision to include it in SFIFF 2008 is open to question.
Seen as part of the San Francisco International Film Festival May 2008.
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