“You don’t wanna die; don’t be born”
French cinema has almost perfected the art of producing extremely hard edged and shocking films.
Quite what drives this fondness for delving into the darkest corners of humanity isn’t entirely clear. Perhaps there is an element of the French wanting to stick it to American pop culture. Maybe they just have a predisposition for the dark and unnatural. Whatever the reason they are undoubtedly good at it.
This debut effort from director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire continues the trend and even manages to cover untold ground in the chronicle of human misery, despair, and exploitation.
Set in a non-specific African nation collapsed deep into the chaos of civil war, the film follows the cold-as-ice teenager Johnny “Mad Dog” as he leads his battalion of brain washed child soldiers through a campaign of violence and terror. Johnny and his troops are ordered by the local warlord to force their way into a government held town and take out a TV transmitter. Armed with this simple goal Johnny marches his cohort onwards through a path of violent encounters. As the adorable tots make their bloody advance through the town they find ample opportunities to indulge in their favourite past times of humiliating torture, casual rape, and looting. Fuelled by raging teenage urges the elder children are quickly drawn into acts of savagery. Freed from any kind of moral constraints the younger ones follow suit and imitate the only role models they have. Civilians flee in droves before them as if an apocalypse were bearing down on their city.
A parallel plot follows a young girl whose path occasionally intertwines with that of Johnny and his maelstrom of destruction. Compared to the hot blood and testosterone which fuels Jonny’s adventure, this second narrative doesn’t quite seem to capture the harrowing reality many young girls in a war torn nation must endure. But it does offer a much needed compassionate counterpoint to the raging young males, and offers some clue as to the role women can play in the resolution of these chronic conflicts.
Looking out from the safety and comfort of the Western world it is difficult to know how accurate a depiction of an African civil war this truly is, or where the lines between artistic imagery and twisted reality are drawn, but considering the film was shot in the recently war torn Liberia you have to assume that the reality was in evidence all around the film makers. And considering that many of the actors and extras are locals who have lived through such nightmares you would have to think that they were impressed on some level and felt it was worth while dragging up al those fresh wounds.
Special mention has to go to the child actors who shockingly display age beyond their years, and are genuinely frightening in their portrayal of youths hardened into iron by years of battle and unrestrained by the morals of a functioning society. There is no doubt that their innocence of youth has truly been crushed. Imagine a child actor in a Hollywood film, gently swaying back and forth on a swing, laughing in their sunny suburban playground, given cute and adorable dialogue – and then compare it this and something inside will snap.
Lord of the Flies easily comes to mind but there is even a strange comparison to the post apocalyptic fantasy worlds like Mad Max. The Mad Dog posse hurtle through abandoned highways shooting Ak-47s from the backs of stolen stylish cars, clad in bizarre costumes and accessories salvaged from whatever hole they have recently torn through. Like most kids, identity and belonging play a big role in the group, resulting in a surreal cast of characters wearing anything from a pink wedding dress to rather cool looking butterfly wings. It creates a deeply unsettling spectacle not unlike a Kubric film or Apocalypse Now.
Sauvaire’s direction sticks to the hand held documentary style of most films trying to capture the grim reality of the darkest corners of the world, though given the war theme this does fit quite well. But the new comer is too often guilty of over excitedly lurching the camera back and forth and panning wildly at super close range, obscuring the action and violence during key dramatic scenes for the sake of some needlessly flashy cuts.
A lot of people will instantly be knocked off guard by the shocking reality of 10 year olds committing such merciless acts of violence and may struggle to cope with many of the harrowing events. Like much of the darker products of French cinema this film will probably go unwatched by a great many people and that seems such a shame given its rare and unflinching window into one of humanities most glaring failures.
As a war film JMD should proudly take its place in the genre as a stand out movie. While bearing some obvious influences from the classics it manages to offer a unique enough perspective which comes naturally enough through the unglamorous and entirely ignored setting. For people uninterested in the genre, or those a little too sensitive to see a graphic portrayal of such a harrowing episode in human history; then beware the sucker punch that is JMD.