A few nights ago, we were staying in a friend's house with Netflix, and had the opportunity to watch this film. I had actually heard about it and watched the promo and was deeply ambivalent about it. 95% of me wanted to refuse to watch a movie in which African children are titled as beasts. 5% of me wanted to be informed as we bump up against the 3 million people who have already watched it. Then I read that the title came from the book on which the movie is based, written by a privileged Nigerian student at Harvard, as his thesis. So the Nigerian kid himself chose the title. I decided we should go for it.
The film is dark, and not particularly redemptive. It is set in a fictional unnamed country, but the cadence of the speech is very West African, so the plot would fit with Boko Haram in Nigeria or the last decades of war in Sierra Leone. The initial scenes establish a believable family trying to make a decent life in a buffer zone protected by international peacekeepers. When the rebels and the government threaten to clash in their town, there is an agonizing scene done very believably where the protagonist boy can not board the taxi with his mother and younger sibling, but has to stay behind with the men. I won't give the story away from there, but you can probably guess that disaster ensues, he ends up running into the bush for his life, and is sucked into joining the rebels and coerced into committing unspeakable crimes.
This is, in short, a nightmare, and I can feel my stomach knot up just remembering the scenes. A nightmare made all the worse by the fact that it is so archetypically true.
Why watch it? Because we must not be lulled into thinking of evil as an imaginary devil, or a puritanically created boogeyman. Halloween is not too scary, on the contrary it is not scary enough. Because, if this story happens to even one child, our world should weep. The fact that it is a current reality for several hundred thousand makes a blithe unawareness unacceptable. Because the developmental needs of a child to belong and to trust adults, and to prove themselves, and their inability to truly imagine their own mortality, make them perfect fodder for unscrupulous schemes. Because crumbling societies leave children vulnerable. Because we know kids in Uganda and South Sudan who have been forced and lured into this life. Because the entire community where we work in Mundri has been caught between the injustice of the military and the ruthlessness of the militias rebelling against them. Because one of my best friends works to help kids recover from trauma.
A student from Yale also won the Individual World Poetry Slam this week, and one line from her poem sticks with me. She speaks of people "Who'll take their politics with a latte while I take mine with tear gas". Being uncomfortable may be, at times, an important requisite of being human.
And the movie and the poem express in art a reflection of the broken world that our young man R experienced this week in our old home. He was beaten by soldiers it seems, had the back of his head cracked so hard that he was unconscious and bleeding and feared dead. None of us are ever completely innocent, and even if he was out at night during an election-imposed curfew, the reaction of the military was dangerous and unjust. We poured out our lives in Bundibugyo and a handful of kids escaped some of the bleaker options in their lives, some of which were not dissimilar to the movie. But even now they are both vulnerable and culpable, and that makes me sad. He has been discharged home, and we believe he will recover, but he almost didn't, and that is real.
I did not love this movie. Blood Diamond has, for me, more hope. But if you can stand the raw aching sorrow of a child who slowly loses his inner compass in the face of a power-hungry man caught in the grip of capital-E Evil, then watch it, soberly. I don't think it is too much of a spoiler to say that in spite of everything the boy manages to connect to his own humanity by remembering his relationship to his family, and by the friendship he establishes with another child soldier. Though the movie does very little to point this out, even in this darkness the flicker of love is not completely snuffed out, and that gives all of us hope.
There is a remarkable resilience that love creates, defying the sub-human non-belonging appellation in the title. Waiting with baited breath for the healing of beasts to boys, of exile to Kingdom.