Angelina Jolie’s ‘First They Killed My Father’ and Cary Fukunaga’s ‘Beasts of No Nation’ lead the audience into the most intimate thoughts and musings of a child, in the midst of a civil war. With a grim portrayal of the harrowing journey of losing your family and the draining moments wondering who might be the next to go, the films capture experiences as seen through the eyes of these young children who lived through the wars.
Nostalgic depictions of the better life before the war took it all away from are followed by the little children being left with no choice but to acquaint themselves with firearms and combat in order to survive what seems like a bleak existence. Separated from their families, with nowhere to go, no place to hide and no one to rely on, they must seek refuge by resorting to whatever means they have to. As a result, their tender minds see things, learn things and do things that take away their innocence even before they are ready to know what’s happening.
Jolie’s ‘First They Killed My Father’ took a lot of flak over the controversies surrounding the casting methods, however, the film in itself, with it’s riveting portrayal through the eyes of five year old Loung Ung and all it’s stunning camera angles capturing the little girl’s expressionless face as she sees death all around her, is sure to paint a vivid picture of the actualities of war for the audience. Set at a time when the Khmer Rouge is growing in popularity in Cambodia, Loung’s father, a policeman of the US backed regime, succumbed to forcing his family to expunge all connection with their previous life as the revolutionaries infiltrate their town. Pretending to be a family of manual labourers, they are forced into work camps where they inevitably lose all sense of individuality; any trait, physical or emotional, out of the ordinary was severely punished by the gun wielding men. The camps depict the vicious theatrics of a barbaric authority by instilling a false sense of loyalty in the people through constant preaching of the regime’s agenda over megaphones.
At the camps, no mistakes are tolerated. In the name of re-education, the workers are brutally killed and thrown in a pit with other bodies. The first to go from Loung’s family, as the title suggests, was her beloved father. After losing him and a daughter, her mother decides it is time for Loung and her siblings to run in different directions to avoid being killed by the zealots. They must not use their real names and should tell anyone they encounter that they are orphans.
Loung goes to a working camp with her sister only to find that the two cannot stay there together, and so she goes on to discover a military camp where she is taught to use a rifle and plant land mines. From the military labour camp, she gets a note giving her permission to see her sister in the other labour camp, however, Loung decides to go visit the camp her family was first taken to instead. There she finds out about her mother’s execution.
The filmmakers, at this point, illustrate a dream she has that same night giving the audience an idea of what may have happened to her mother. Such glimpses into her thoughts, the camera’s focus on her face and the minimal use of sound effects and voice overs add an eerie gist to the distressing film.
Soon after, this camp is bombed by the Vietnamese, and Loung is forced to flee along with the other refugees. On the road, she happens to reunite with her brother and sister. But the ordeal doesn’t end there as the camp set up for refugees by the Vietnamese troops also falls under the attack of the Khmer Rouge and the children have to seek asylum in the fact that they have no choice but to trust the Vietnamese disregarding the hatred for the them that has been brainwashed into them by the revolutionaries as part of the Khmer Rouge agenda.
While trying to escape the cross fires, she stumbles onto the site where she planted landmines as part of her training at the labour camp – five year old Loung stands in the middle of the site and has to watch with horror as the flesh of fleeing refugees blow up into bits from stepping on the mines that she planted herself. As the war comes to an end, Loung is once again reunited with her siblings and rejoices.
The movie comes to an end with a peep into the future when Loung and her siblings are all full grown adults and praying at a monastery for their departed parents.
While Loung only briefly acquaints herself with guns and mines as she shifts from camp to camp looking for means to survive, Agu, a little boy from a Western African Country, is forced to more than just familiarize himself with heavy ammunition in Fukunaga’s, highly gripping, ‘Beasts of No Nation’ in order to get through life in one piece.
Agu, as well, comes from a loving family that is settled in the UN buffer zone at the time of a civil war. Panic arises when the government falls and belligerent rebel soldiers decide to start shooting the locals. The village council resolves to allow the men to stay while the women and little children are made to escape. Originally, Agu, the preteen boy, was intended to be sent away with his mother and the two other toddler siblings. However, due to lack of space in the taxi that takes them, Agu is forced to stay back with his older brother and father.
Rebel and government soldiers shoot in and around the village while the locals look for ways to avoid getting caught in the crossfire. With no luck on his side, Agu watches as his father is executed by the rebels and his brother falls victim to the open fire.The film efficiently captures the quick moments that lead a happy family into the arms of the unknown; evoking the obscure situations brought on by a climate of war.
Afraid to get shot himself, Agu has no time to stop and hold his brother and father or lament their death. He runs into the forest to save his life and stumbles into the territory of a local insurgent faction with members of varying ages, from preteens to young adults, all of whom have lost their families to the war. The commandant of the rebel militia, called NDF, takes Agu in and has someone teach him the ways of their tribe. Initiation into the NDF calls for Agu making his first kill with a machete as he strikes the skull of an innocent university student. The young child is initiated into a universe where drugs are used heavily to get the soldiers to keep fighting; where women are seen as mere sexual objects for pleasure; and where all naivety goes to decay.
Several armed raids and fights follow and Agu chillingly grows to get used to the idea of blood, death and gore. The young child comes to define the smell of death to be ‘sweet like sugarcane and rotten like plum wine’ which makes one ponder upon the trials Agu had to face to be unscathed even as he watches people get killed, as he kills some himself and remains surrounded by a rather grotesque atmosphere of death.
At one point when the battalion Agu is a part of are detained by UN Troops and the younger members, including Agu, are sent to a missionary. While the other children rejoice in the fact that they get food, shelter and peace, Agu cannot bring himself to ease up. He finds it rather arduous to pretend as if everything is alright and that whatever happened in the past bears no significance anymore. The counselor at the missionary attempts to get Agu to talk about his experiences to no avail. Having all of his humanity sucked out from his little being, Agu wonders how he can talk to the counsellor after everything he has seen; he discerns her as a little girl, and himself an old man, unable to delineate the reality of the atrocities he saw and engaged in.
The two movies, with similar stories, encapsulate the extremities of war, but through the eyes of children. From depending on their parents for everything when the days were good, to being forced into self reliance through traumatic expeditions, the movies portray the gruesome lives of young ones caught in conflict.
While Loung faces hardships and sees death all around her at the age of five, Agu ends up as a young guerilla fighter and is sucked into the world of blood and gore, in addition to hard drugs, devalautaions, rape and lust. The cinematographers shoot, in gruelling detail, all the things that could go through the mind of a child when they suddenly have no one to rely on but themselves.
Agu’s story uses many voiceovers to express his emotions out loud as he talks to god in his mind through every step of his way, and so, one can notice the drastic change in how he begins to see the world; from hating himself after his first kill, fearing God would detest his actions to nonchalantly describing the smell of death to be sweet like sugarcane. One can not help but wince at the thought of what a little boy should have to go through to come to a point so early on in his life where gory deaths, drugs, and conflicts are only second nature to his being.
Loung’s film, on the other hand, does not utilise many sound effects: shots are filled with sinister silences followed by nothing but the sounds of blasts, rustling of leaves, people crying or taking their last breaths–giving the audience’s aural senses, in addition to visual, the feel of a highly dramatic and emotional rollercoaster ride.
While both films end, more or less, on a happy note, they also hint at the uncertainties of life and death and the unpredictability of conflict. Jolie and Fukunaga take on a unique perspective of the wars by presenting it through the eyes of young children who happen to see the worst in life before they can even live most of their lives. Since most of us watching these movies today have never experienced a milieu of this kind, we can only choose to wonder and read from memoirs, the struggles and hardships that come one’s way in conflict ridden contexts and what it must have been like, and still is in some countries, knowing that one’s demise could be just another lingering fact.
Kaavya Jacob is currently studying Sociology in Delhi University. There are only a few things Kaavya truly enjoys more than reading books – be it Noam Chomsky’s political insight or Tess Gerritsen’s gory murders. She finds herself the happiest when she is in a bustling coffee shop or a park with a book in hand. Other times, she either finds herself completely fuming over the news and cursing at the TV or impatiently looking up spoilers for any new Netflix series she happens to watch. You can find Kaavya on Instagram.