Children of the revolution
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