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Johnny Mad Dog, maybe 15, leads a band of boy soldiers in a civil war in an unnamed African country. "Don't want to die? Don't be born" is one of their shouted mottoes. We follow Mad Dog and his crew - No Good Advice, Butterfly, Chicken Hair, and others - as they kill, pillage rape, interrogate, and terrorize on their march to the capital. They take a TV station and lead an assault on the President's residence. We also follow Laokole, about Johnny age, as she tries to hold together her family of brother and disabled father. Is there more than chaos and inhumanity here? At war since age 10, has Johnny anything inside? Written by
Bearing witness to appalling events, is this destined to become one of The great war films?
Covering the same territory as BLOOD DIAMOND this couldn't be further away from Hollywood's treatment of child soldiers. However, although sentimental and following the classical Hollywood patterns, BLOOD DIAMOND does have its merits. I'd also compare this with SAVING PRIVATE RYAN because there's a similar visceral realism, on a budget which was probably one percent of Spielberg's film.
This is difficult to watch from the opening scene onwards as the protagonists, boys from their early to late teens, commit the most appalling acts of depravity - such as forcing another child to shoot his father dead, raping a young woman. One of these acts is witnessed by a young girl, who Johnny Mad Dog is to face at the films denouement. The director overcomes his budget limitations with effective use of hand-held camera, close in, jerky, tightly edited, frequently with the look of actual documentary footage. Things are often obscured, you can't quite see whats going on, which further disorientates and unsettles making an effective portrayal of the chaos of war. Another film I'd compare this to is the Russian COME AND SEE, which follows a teenage boy whose village has been massacred by the Germans. It also works in terms of disorienting the viewer, building into a climax, with a character who is not goal directed but functions more as a figure through which we bear witness. Johnny Mad Dog works in the same way - most impact as the credits roll, accompanied by a series of photographs taken during the Liberian civil war of 1990 - 2003. The film has drawn on those images, recreating them on the screen and enabling us to bear witness.
Sound...very little music and impressive use of sound. The opening scenes made all the more effective with the horror of events conveyed through screams. Dialogue is in pidgeon English, subtitled and has a raw authenticity to it, with English words put into African grammatical constructs, mixed with local dialects, or words put together to form new ones.
Performances from the young cast are superb, with an utterly convincing blankness. The violence has a randomness and purposelesness to it. Shouting at their victims, randomly barking out irreverent questions such as 'what is the area of a triangle?' These kids can't be written off as 'evil' because they seem to lack any motivation. Dressed in bizarre clothes such as wedding dresses, sporting headgear, fairy wings, in a strange way they've adapted to a set of circumstances and through the violence have formed their own surrogate family. I think the best sense to make of this is through mental health and the idea of a collective psychopathy which maintains it own awful momentum.
Violence is all the more shocking in the way the director avoids cinematic conventions. There isn't a build up to someone being shot: one moment the boys are 'patrolling' a street, the next moment one drops to the ground, hit by a sniper. The treatment is very matter of fact, shocking for the banality, the casual nature of the violence.
Challenging, chilling, disturbing, harrowing and difficult to watch. Time will tell but I think this may well, eventually, be seen as one of the 'great' war films. I can't think of another which deals in the same way so effectively with child soldiers
There are no heroes here, no resolution, ultimately it points up the complete futility and waste of all wars.
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