Dir: Jean-Stephane Sauvaire. France/Liberia/Belgium. 2008. 93mins.
Cinema is forever inventing new ways to tell us that war is hell, but few recent films have explored the extremes of that hell as vividly or intrepidly as Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s African drama Johnny Mad Dog. Shot in Liberia, with support from the Liberian government, the film is a terrifying, somewhat surreal story of child soldiers in that country’s recent conflicts.
Shattering performances by unknowns, many of them actually former child soldiers, plus a confrontational directing style make this one of the most striking recent French fiction debuts. African-set stories are traditionally a tough sell, and its punishing brutality will deter some. But this will be a must at least for festival s, and an appealing attraction to niche buyers with an eye for the cutting edge.
Set apparently in Liberia - the location is never specified - the film follows a rag-tag detachment of under-age militia fighting in an African conflict. They are headed by an older General, Never Die (Duo), and have been trained over the years to be mercilessly brutal. For most of these boys, and the occasional female conscript, war is the only world they know. One teenager, Johnny Mad Dog (Minie), lost his family at 10, and has long since forgotten his real name. The detachment, kitted out in bizarre fancy-dress garb - fairy wings, wigs, hip-hop accoutrements, even a wedding dress - operate a ruthless shoot-on-sight policy, sometimes implemented on each other.
Their current mission, with Johnny as squadron leader, is to take over a city and help unseat the government. Meanwhile, a 13-year-old girl, Laokole (Vandy), tends to her younger brother and their legless father. The film gradually brings Johnny and Laokole together, positioning them as opposing forces of catastrophe and redemption in African society; a startling conclusion proving that Sauvaire has nothing quite so schematic in mind, but it offers at least the possibility of hope.
Sauvaire gives us some of the most terrifying and feral militia forces ever seen on film. The young soldiers rarely speak beneath a furious yell, terrifying their victims and barking out slogans and morale-boosting chants apparently culled from Vietnam movies. There’s a certain Lord OfThe Flies horror in the suggestion that these are still children at play in the most murderous way, their battle garb suggestive of a nightmarish carnival (end-credits photos of the real things show that this dress code is quite true to life).
The film is compelling from the start: Sauvaire’s use of sound, disorienting framing and deliberately fragmented editing gives the film the urgency of recent mainstream war drama yet stands apart as very much an art film, stripping the action of any sensationalism. The predominant language is English, barked out with an edge of heavily-accented patois that make English subtitles necessary.
A terrific cast put their all into the action, all the more unsettlingly given that many of them have lived through these very horrors. Some will surely perceive an element of exploitation, unwitting or otherwise, in Sauvaire’s recruiting these children to re-enact such atrocities; in fact a programme called the Johhny Mad Dog Foundation has been set up to help support the young actors.
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Based on the book by Emmanuel Dongala
Jackson Tennessee Fourgeaud
Daisy Victoria Vandy