Friday, March 28, 2014

Film Atlas (Liberia): Johnny Mad Dog

Country: Liberia
Title: Johnny Mad Dog (2008)
Johnny Mad Dog, a member of a gang of child soldiers known as the Deathdealers, fights under the command of General Never Die in an unspecified African civil war. He leads other boys with names like No Good Advice and Small Devil in a raid on a civilian village, the destruction of a government TV station and finally a siege of the capital city. We see them initiating a kidnapped child by forcing him to kill his own parents. We see them pillaging and looting for their supplies and donning whatever clothing suits them (which leads to fanciful touches like butterfly wings or a wedding dress). And we see them constantly inundated in violence while furiously screaming, threatening and killing. Their anger crests as they realize their expendability, superfluity and impotence, excepting their capacity for violence. With the war coming to an end, there is, presumably, some change in political power, but it takes place beyond their immediate sensory perception, which might as well be on another planet. Their future (where to live, how to live, what to live for), especially in a country which no longer has any use for them or their exclusively lethal skill set, is now a big question mark. Crossing Johnny Mad Dog’s purely self-serving trajectory is Laokole, a girl who is trying to get her young brother and crippled father to safety.

Johnny Mad Dog is a powerful and passionate work, but it is also incredibly hard to engage with and, more so than any other film in this series, it felt like an inadequate response to the issues it raises. Perhaps this is because the endemic use of child soldiers is a global trauma on an impossible to fathom scale, incapable of being addressed through conventional approaches. But just as there are great films striving to cope with the immensity of the Holocaust or the dropping of the atomic bombs, we are starting to see the brave first attempts at tackling the topic of child soldiers (Nigeria’s 2007 film Ezra being another example). Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala and French-Liberian director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire have captured the kneejerk response, the anger, bitterness and moral numbness, and although they often capture it quite well, it occasionally feels hallow in the absence of exploring deeper implications. But to be fair, the film is intentionally delving into the pointlessness and emptiness of war, and particularly the confluence of child abuse, cyclical exploitation and genocidal violence in which respect for human life is utterly eradicated.

Where Sauvaire succeeds is in showing the underlying mechanics of the brainwashing process: The way children are systematically broken and disempowered and then given a surrogate sense of control in the form of a gun. The way authority, peer pressure and alienation can warp the social growth of youths and aim their confused rage at arbitrary targets. The way cultish chants and hard drugs can rev up mind and body into a frenzy beyond fear or thought or personal responsibility. Potentially even more disturbing is that Johnny Mad Dog doesn’t show, or even suggest, a way to undo these processes nor even an intention on behalf of the victors to try. Saurvaire also possesses an attention to detail and visceral intensity that makes the scenes or combat preparation and execution (especially the crossing of a half-collapsed highway bridge as the children enter the capital) chilling and immediate, though the absence of psychological insight prevents us from investing in their fates and the crutch of rapid cutting and exaggerated shaky-cam distracts and detracts.

I was left wishing that Johnny Mad Dog had been even more ambitious. I wanted it to tackle the lives of these children from before they were twisted into human weapons, through the end of the war and into their reintegration or mutual-rejection of society. Showing only the blood-splattered chaos at the center has all the sensational impact, but little of the desperately needed context. This was a conscious decision by the makers (the name of the country, its president, the war, the two sides and their respective causes are all conspicuously never mentioned), but I’m unsure rather it makes the film timeless and universal, as intended, or just vague and inaccessible.

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