Cary Fukunaga: The violence I show is pretty tame compared to reality

Child soldier film Beasts of No Nation could be be the catalyst for film industry change.


Beasts of No Nation is the acclaimed new film based on the prize-winning 2005 novel of the same name by Nigerian-American author Uzodinma Iweala. Set in an unspecified country, and filmed on location in Ghana, it’s the harrowing, action-filled drama of a boy recruited into a rebel army of child soldiers led by a charismatic but brutal commandant.

The film stars UK actor Idris Elba– famously Stringer in hit US television series The Wire and Nelson Mandela in Long Walk to Freedom – as the Commandant. But the story is told from the perspective of the central character Agu, a nine-year-old boy played by Abraham Attah, brainwashed by the Commandant into committing horrifying atrocities. 

Known for the US TV series True Detective and the film Sin Nombre, Canadian Cary Fukunaga directed, produced and wrote the screenplay. He started studying resource conflicts at university in the ’90s, went to Sierra Leone in 2003 to research and heard personal testimonies. One of the most gruesome scenes in the film is Agu’s graphic initiation into killing, when he is forced to split an innocent man’s skull with a machete.

“I don’t think you’d be honest about the subject if you didn’t show the violence. That’s part of the issue that you’re exposing,” Fukunaga told African Business. “We want to protect children and the fact that they’re exposed, enact, receive and are the victims of this kind of violence makes it so abhorrent, so you have to show it. The violence I show is even pretty tame compared to reality.”


The film starts by showing Agu’s happy life before the conflict destroys his family. “It’s a hard movie, and I wanted to convince people to see it, so I wanted them to be surprised by the amount of humour at the beginning. It’s about putting a human face to these things and creating an emotional connection with people that otherwise would feel so distant and far away from our experience.”

It’s a savage and heartbreaking story, and some would say shows Africa in a negative light. Fukunaga replies, “Africa is many countries. We’re depicting a story about a kind of war that is still taking place in various parts of the continent. Just because the subject matter might be dark and is about something that can be perceived to be negative doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t tell it. There might be that criticism, but at the same time it’s real and you can’t avoid it just to make the PR for a continent feel better.”

Uzodinma Iweala, now editor-in-chief of Ventures Africa, wrote the novel as his senior thesis while studying at Harvard in the US, inspired by meeting Ugandan former child soldier China Keitetsi to do further research. His own parents were teenagers during Nigeria’s civil war in 1967–70.

He told African Business, “When I was writing the book, it was at the back of my mind, because if you’re involved with the media and the continent, you’re always concerned about that.

“For me, it’s always about complexity. The bottom line is that, for me, writing the book was about humanising folks involved in difficult situations. There are difficult situations all around the world, the continent of Africa is not alone in dealing with conflict or poverty. What needs to be extracted is that there’s more than one story and I think there should be debate about the film and the book itself.”

Surprisingly, given its challenging subject, Beasts of No Nation and Netflix’s pioneering entry into cinema exhibition for its films may end up blurring the line between streamed and exhibited films. Netflix is available in many regions outside Africa and is reportedly coming to South Africa next year. Though Fukunaga sees film’s future could be online, he is lobbying to have the movie distributed in cinemas in more territories. “I still hold cinema in some way sacred,” he says.

But if Netflix, as an online company, can “create films that aren’t beholden to the standard studio formulas and create bolder, riskier content, and if it can also bring that content to the cinema, so that consumer choice involves the cinema,” he sees new vistas opening up for both sectors of the industry.

In Iweala’s view, in future, “The use of streaming is going to be key, especially with the increasing use of data, and for the viewership market where you don’t have the bricks-and-mortar film infrastructure.” This could be particularly relevant for Africa.

“If Beasts of No Nation works being released simultaneously for private consumption and for the public theatre-going experience, you’ll find that there’s a paradigm shift and you can make the private viewing screens just as intense and important as a theatre release. And that will have profound implications.

“If you think about Nollywood, it’s always put private viewership first and then the bricks-and-mortar caught up, so that’s the viewing culture of the continent already.” 

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