Perhaps the mind-boggling tardiness of the United Nations, who didn’t even acknowledge the military use of youths until 1999, isn’t quite as damnable as it appears: Independent of its humanitarian implications, the ubiquity of child armies is a philosophical nightmare. Granted, there’s something quite cosmic about them, and about the notion that man’s aggression can transcend age if coerced into action. We can aestheticize the pre- and early-adolescent mind as sharply primitive, and imagine warlords in Sudan or Darfur as abusively harnessing the raw brutality of Lord of the Flies and loading it into their artillery banks. And we can logically criticize the use of child soldiers as grossly exploitative, not only of innocent babes who don’t know any better, but of human nature’s predilection to barbarism. And yet none of this enables a usefully emotional understanding of what might drive an 11-year-old, even a starving, brainwashed one, to the heights of adult sadism—ruthless rape, relentless murder. In a way, it may be that such acts are unthinkable because we’re terrified of identifying with them. Who among us was not victimized in some fashion while young? And who among us was not, at least once, frightened more by his or her imagined retaliation than by the original aggressor?
Johnny Mad Dog explores what happens when that inchoate rage gets its hands on unlimited ammo and a vague political purpose that legitimizes any and all violent fancies. Based on a novel by Emmanuel Dongala, the film updates the source material’s setting from the Congo to the siege of Monrovia in the Second Liberian Civil War and, remarkably, features a cast partially composed of teenaged veterans from that conflict. The film’s politics, however, like those of Claire Denis’s White Material, are purposefully confused; the kids are fighting for the rebels against an allegedly corrupt government, but it’s impossible to tell one side from the other, or whom the U.N. peacekeepers that enter in the third act are backing. Race is tied up in it as well—the undesirable clan are “dogo”—to the point that when the child army hears Martin Luther King Jr.‘s “I Have a Dream” speech on the radio, they think it’s the president speaking. And, significantly, after his remark about the negro’s poverty amid a “vast ocean of material prosperity,” one of the soldiers snidely asks, “So where’s my fucking money?”
Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s deftly stylized camerawork reminds us at key intervals that what we’re seeing is artifice, dramatization. (Even as we’re being introduced to the members of the central preteen brigade in the jerky, handheld opening scene, the scene cuts abruptly to black several times, as though giving us the opportunity to take tiny breaths.) But much like Louis Malle’s harrowing use of non-actors in the patiently apolitical Lacombe, Lucien, the emphasis Johnny Mad Dog‘s structure places on the errant whims of its core cast refuses to provide us with a fictionalized distance. We aren’t watching “performances” in a “plot” so much as an attempt to witness the unseen specifics of a global horror. Johnny Mad Dog doesn’t straddle the line between fiction and nonfiction so much as slit its throat open and hang it upside down.
We’re constantly made aware of the characters’ immaturity and playfulness, even as they fulfill their destinies as cogs in a rebellious machinery of death. After killing a government sniper, one of the soldiers (a child of perhaps nine or 10) commemorates his passing by chanting a song in broken patois English about what he does and doesn’t want done to his “GI dick” if he should be shot down. The army also wears costumes suggestive of naïve sexual curiosity: One boy affixes fairy wings to his back, and when another steals a bridal gown early on in the film, the act of donning the garment seems to put him in touch with his body in ways he’s never before experienced.
The troop’s general-cum-guardian, Never Die (Joseph Duo), warns the children that whining about “ma or pa” will result in execution (implying that a legion of weaker tykes have already been buried) and, playing tough love daddy, assigns everyone a tribal nickname; aside from the titular moniker, there’s No Good Advice (Dagbeth Tweh) and Quick to Kill (Julius Wood). The kids naturally relish these; at that age, how one is evaluated informs identity. And with these juvenile props in place, the film lulls us into inurement toward the raping and pillaging that comprises its first half. We swiftly realize, for example, that the realm of the trigger-happy isn’t terribly conducive to dramatic tension; whenever we’re beginning to sympathize with a victim, their life is cut short by a fusillade.
Sauvaire encourages this dulled response to the represented atrocities in order to allow us to both inhabit and then reject the solipsism of the crusaders, especially Johnny Mad Dog (Christophe Minie) himself. A contemplative braggart, Johnny leads the others when older rebels aren’t around, and he’s the only one whose backstory is even cursorily fleshed out. (We learn at one point that he’s been warring against the current government since the age of 10.) After a village raid where Johnny encounters a similarly aged girl, Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy), and her younger brother, the narrative bifurcates, cross-cutting between the child troops marching down a path of carnage toward Monrovia, and Laokole attempting to procure medical assistance for her wounded father. Laokole’s story possesses moments of far-fetched idealism that lightly undercut the savagery of the central themes, but contrasting her determination with Johnny’s proves instructive. Both are just-barely adolescents, caught between the exuberantly mindless hatred of those beneath them and the arrogant opportunism of those above them. Unlike the film’s other characters, they’re confused because they are presented with choices.
These decisions, however, aren’t as simple as between right and wrong. In the third act, Johnny’s sangfroid begins to unravel: He backs down from an argument with U.N. guards despite his crew being more numerous and better armed; he senselessly slaughters a pig that one of his underlings purloins and then claims a wandering girl as his own chattel to draw the line between haves and have-nots; in a seemingly Michael Haneke-inspired sequence, he terrorizes a well-to-do high school teacher and her husband, taunting them to solve arithmetic problems to which he doesn’t know the answers. Sauvaire further attempts to humanize Johnny by staging a clumsy confrontation between him and Laokole at the denouement, but the kernel of compassion hiding behind his war-hawk demeanor can’t be teased out by this final humiliation. It’s in his acute lack of self-awareness, a symptom of puberty exacerbated by the nihilism of guerrilla battle.
A more fitting coda might be found in Reporter, a recent documentary about Nicholas Kristof’s journalism. In one eerie scene, Kristof interviews a child soldier in the army of Congolese warlord General Nkunda; the boy first admits to having raped women in the name of their political struggle, and then apologizes for his behavior, saying that he only wants to “go home.” The boy’s contrition isn’t any more sincere than Johnny’s would be, were he forced to articulate it, but what’s devastating is that the child doesn’t seem to know exactly what he’s supposed to be sorry for. I think back on similar times in my own youth, when egocentricism led to error, error led to punishment, and punishment led to both confusion and intimidation. Then I try to imagine myself with an empty belly, and the cold weight of a gun in my hands. Growing up was hard enough without them.