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When Children Go To War: A Heartbreaking Portrait In 'Beasts Of No Nation'

Abraham Attah plays a child soldier and Idris Elba is his commander in Cary Fukunaga's <em>Beasts of No Nation.</em>
Abraham Attah plays a child soldier and Idris Elba is his commander in Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation.

Years ago, before he had made a name for himself as the director of the first season of HBO's True Detective, Cary Fukunaga was a college student learning about conflicts in Central and West Africa. He remembers being particularly struck by accounts of child soldiers — a subject Fukunaga revisits in his new film, Beasts of No Nation.

"It's hard to say now, on the other side of having made the film, what brought me back to it, what kept my interest or the passion fired up for the subject," Fukunaga tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross. "I think really it comes from, for me, the uncanny juxtaposition of children and war."

Beasts of No Nation, which is available on Netflix, is adapted from the novel of the same name about child soldiers in an unnamed West African country. In it, Ghanaian actor Abraham Attah plays a young boy who has lost his family and falls into the hands of a commander who uses a combination of force, flattery, threats and drugs to commandeer an army of child soldiers.

Though the movie presents a brutal portrait of the life of child soldiers, Fukunaga notes that his young actors were protected from the scenes of violence by the "clinical" aspects of filming and special effects.

"Especially for Abraham, I didn't think at any moment did he ever sort of get lost in the moment in thinking he really was a soldier or was doing these things in real life. It was very clear to him that he was a character and had an acting coach that also helped him to emote how we wanted him to be moment-to-moment in the scenes," he says.

Interview Highlights

On directing children in violent scenes, specifically a scene in which the main character kills someone with a machete

Fukunaga also directed the first season of HBO's <em>True Detective. </em>
/ Pete Thompson Photography
Pete Thompson Photography
Fukunaga also directed the first season of HBO's True Detective.

When we're shooting it, I hate to give away movie magic, but, for example, he's actually not holding a machete. In that shot where that blade hits his head there's nothing in his hand except for a handle — that had to be added in with the effects for safety. It's an example of how he's just swinging his arm and the actor is pretending like he got hit. I remember on set it almost felt ridiculous to him because there was an invisible blade and there was this guy screaming as if something hit him. Actually one of the kids started laughing and it was sort of like this infectious laughter on set that was much harder to get them to stop laughing and act serious again than to soothe any trauma that came out of that.

When we cut it all together, though, and showed it to all the kids and the more action-y, explosive scenes everyone is cheering and stuff, and in that scene you got to watch all the kids go quiet for a second and take it in. I think there's that difference between when you're playing on set and doing something and then actually seeing when it's constructed, what the effect is. I think it was moving to them.

On the actors' exposure to the kind of violence depicted inBeasts of No Nation

In fact, within Ghana [where the film was shot], which is a relatively peaceful country — the biggest disturbance being a coup d'état in the '80s that was also relatively nonviolent — people there haven't experienced wars like Nigeria has or right next door Ivory Coast has, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Guinea, Burkina Faso. It has had a very controlled post-colonial existence. Ghana actually has supplied a lot of the peace-keeping troops in that region.

But surprisingly, in terms of what the kids are aware of, in terms of these wars that are happening right next door, they really don't know about them and when we talked about what happened in Liberia, for example, none of these kids knew anything about that war. So we did cast quite a few people out of Sierra Leone and Liberia who had participated in both of those wars, and I think they provided a lot of context for the nonactors and just in terms of anecdotal storytelling, in terms of what their experiences were and sharing them with these kids.

On directing the first season ofTrue Detective

[Matthew] McConaughey, he's one of the smartest guys I know, and he brings a hell of a lot to the table, and I remember our first discussions when he was able to wrap his head around the character, because he had been shooting Dallas Buyers Club just before our shoot, also in New Orleans, and he had a notebook already, he had thoughts about language, he really loved Nic [Pizzolatto]'s dialogue. It was really firing him up. So my job, really, was to field his questions more than to add to it, because I think he already had a ton of it there.

On keepingthecomplicatedTrue Detectiveplot straight

There were multiple timelines, and I suppose they might be confusing for a viewer but when you're in preproduction and you're figuring out the chronology of everything, you're sort of forced to understand what happened when, between different young women we meet and different murders that took place, people we learn about, you start to create a mental map of everything.

On his family history,his Japanese-Americangrandfather growing up in an internment camp and his whitegrandfather fighting in WWII

My family's history is something that continues to inspire me, but also intrigue me, because there's so many mysteries still. But I used to ask my grandfather all the time about his youth and growing up and about joining the [military]. ...

Then on my Japanese side, from my grandparents' understanding, what it was like to be interned, and what their life was like before that, and what they wanted to do. My grandparents always thought it was so funny that I was always essentially interviewing them for school projects, and eventually for my thesis at university. They always felt like their story wasn't interesting or worth mentioning and, I think, my coaxing them to tell their story was probably more annoying than anything else, but they did it, they shared it, and I have — they're passed away now — recordings of their experiences. ...

I guess I'm a product of [America's] errors and also a reflection of its best self. I wouldn't want to have been born anywhere else. I'm fascinated by the history of this country and I'm fascinated especially by 20th-century history and where we've headed and the mistakes we've made. But what does still make me very proud to be an American is to still be the grandchild of someone who has been interned and also still have the successes I've had to be able to be an artist as well.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.