Chil­dren of the revo­lu­tion

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Filmreviews - DON­ALD CLARKE

IT HARDLY needs to be said that the prac­tice of us­ing chil­dren as sol­diers is a con­tin­u­ing ob­scen­ity. That aware­ness may not, how­ever, pre­pare you for the bril­liantly fab­ri­cated hor­ror of Jean-Stephane Sau­vaire’s dra­matic treat­ment of this un­com­fort­able sub­ject.

Set in an un­named African coun­try (though filmed in Liberia),

Johnny Mad Dog be­gins with rebels arriving in a vil­lage, forc­ing a young boy to shoot his fa­ther and bul­ly­ing him into be­com­ing their lat­est homi­ci­dal re­cruit. Loosely plot­ted, the film – think

Band of Broth­ers for psy­chopaths – then fol­lows the com­pany as, fired-up on drugs and in­co­her­ent rhetoric, they rape and mur­der their way across the city. Else­where, a young girl frets about her young brother and her dis­abled fa­ther. We sus­pect the fam­ily and the killing squad will even­tu­ally meet up.

You would ex­pect such a film to use the gram­mar of the docu­d­rama. Sure enough, the cam­era rarely stays still, and the sol­diers’ gab­bled di­a­logue fre­quently over­laps. Yet Sau­vaire shuns fuzzy cin­e­matog­ra­phy and found mu­sic for a sur­pris­ingly lush, en­velop­ing ap­proach. Many shots are com­posed with cau­tious grace and Jack­son Ten­nesse Fourgeaud’s score throbs and sweeps in im­pres­sively per­sua­sive fash­ion.

At times, Johnny Mad Dog does seem to dis­cover a slightly du­bi­ous thrill in its atroc­i­ties, but, for the most part, the di­rec­tor re­mains re­spon­si­bly ap­palled by his im­ages.

So, where are the pol­i­tics in all this? By al­low­ing the com­pany’s leader to spout a de­ranged ti­rade ran­domly as­sem­bled from rev­o­lu­tion­ary buzz­words (lib­er­a­tion, op­pres­sion, free­dom) Sau­vaire sug­gests that ide­ol­ogy has been to­tally over­pow­ered by the urge to dom­i­nate and de­stroy.

Yet this is not a ni­hilis­tic film. You might find the se­quence in which sol­diers ram­page while a Martin Luther King speech plays over the sound­track some­what broad and re­duc­tive, but, by ac­knowl­edg­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of morally proper in­sur­gency, the film-mak­ers al­lows hope into their oth­er­wise ghastly uni­verse.

There’s a lot to chew upon in this hugely im­pres­sive tragedy.

Band of bonkers broth­ers in Jean-Stephane Sau­vaire’s French drama

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