Ezra, Nigerian-born, England-educated filmmaker Newton I. Aduaka’s fictional take on the war children of Sierra Leone which follows the tale of the eponymous child-soldier lead, is the first film to approach the same subject broached in Ishmael Beah’s best-selling memoir “A Long Way Gone.” But unlike Beah, who was himself kidnapped and forced to fight in a war he couldn’t comprehend, Aduaka, a child of the Biafran War, was only four when that fighting ceased. According to press notes, it was the French TV broadcaster Arte that approached Aduaka to make his film. And it is this lack of a “burning desire,” an absolute passionate need to put a personal truth up onscreen, that ultimately does Ezra in.
While I applaud the nobility inherent in the attempt to create a cinematic record of an important piece of history, this is simply a case where a highly skilled director is paired with the wrong story. Aduaka, who cites the Italian neo-realists and Tarkovsky as influences, is just too in love with the visual to care about much else. The cinematography flows like a river, a silent witness, over the beautifully bright costumes of the strong African women and the red carpet of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission courtroom, from present-day Ezra’s testimony to flashbacks of atrocities painted in blood. I almost wish I’d watched Ezra with the sound off, for the script is about as deep as a textbook lesson. The screenplay serves the camera like a cart before a horse.
And then there’s the acting. It’s one thing to avoid using a Hotel Rwanda Don Cheadle, quite another to cast actors who seem to have been chosen on the basis of how interesting they look at the end of a lens. The performances are plodding, lacking in all subtlety or nuance. As a result, when Ezra’s sister gets her tongue cut out, the scene carries as much weight as if it had happened to one of the background extras. One constantly feels the heavy hand of the director on top of the performers—you can almost see Aduaka motioning to Mamodou Turay Kamara’s Ezra to “turn this way, now that.” Aduaka values picturesque framing over true emotion and Ezra suffers for it. Yes, this is a “big” story, but without sufficient character development, the small personal details that create a living, breathing human being, we simply don’t care about the greater picture. We’re left with empty scenes of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission moderator waving a bible like a threat, a judge rolling her eyes at a lying witness—all too easy and formulaic. The dialogue goes from “Who did this to you? What happened?” to monologues overstuffed with references to government corruption and blood diamonds. When Ezra threatens to shoot a fellow soldier point blank you know he won’t because he’s a “good guy,” a cowboy who manhandles only when defending his honor, when sending his sister away for her own good. We only know that he’s killed many people in horrific ways because he’s testifying at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. We’re told, not shown.
In fact, none of the onscreen “murderers” seem all that capable of murder, only of that same brand of melodrama that occurs in the courtroom as observers “ooh” and “ahh” in all the predictable places. Yes, it’s a good idea to contrast Ezra, who was forced into the war through kidnapping, with his future wife Miriam, who willingly and idealistically joined. It’s not such a good idea for Miriam to tell of her Maoist upbringing like she’s teaching a course on government history (much like Ezra does in his truth-telling testimony). Of course, this all occurs after the unnecessary dialogue when Ezra first notices Miriam: “Who’s that?” he whispers to a soldier as the camera emphatically cuts back and forth between the budding lovebirds. “She’s very sweet.” She’s also an AK-47-carrying revolutionary who we never see kill.
In the end, Ezra adds up to a series of faux reenactments alternating with a courtroom scenes lacking in much drama. From the first minute to the last we’re constantly reminded—through peephole views, grand overhead shots, a slo-mo to sped-up drug-taking orgy, and forced scenes that don’t ring true (a soldier loudly accuses the leader of stealing diamonds and, surprise!, is shot for it)—that we’re watching a movie. Ezra never even agonizes over his choice to leave the child soldier life; he simply walks away like he’d never been brainwashed in the first place. For me, the most disturbing scene is one in which Miriam sneaks up behind Ezra’s sister, covering her eyes to surprise her. In wartime Sierra Leone that’s one sick joke, and one that goes unnoticed by a director so blinded by love for his camera.