Two books have recently been weighing quite heavily on my mind.
The first is J. G. Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition (1970), a novel that is as striking in its imagery and ideas as it is in its formal innovation. Rather than providing a coherent narrative, Ballard chops the book up into short paragraphs that are more or less conceptually and thematically related. Themes, motifs and characters re-appear (sometimes with different names, sometimes filling spaces previously occupied by other characters) but between the disjointed writing style and the abstraction of Ballard’s ideas, it is clear to me that any story one projects upon the book is exactly that – a projection. The haecceity of the book is not a matter of plots and characters and events.
The second is Ray Brassier’s Nihil Unbound – Enlightenment and Extinction (2007). A work of surprisingly accessible wide-spectrum philosophy, Nihil Unbound opens with an important distinction between what he calls the scientific image of man – the best scientific model for human cognitive functioning – and the manifest image – the model we use when thinking about and describing others. The manifest image is grounded in what is known as ‘folk psychology’ and it represents centuries-worth of little theories and assumptions about how humans think. This image is made up of relatively complex ideas such as Freudian projection as well as more fundamental ideas such as the idea that there is such a thing as the self and it is that which works the controls of the body. The problem is that the clearer the scientific image becomes, the more the manifest image comes to resemble a collection of empty and surprisingly brittle superstitions.
One of the things that I have taken away from these books is the artifice and ubiquity of the story and of the narrative form.
As humans, we are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. Our brains are optimised for pattern-recognition and, when confronted by a stream of random and unstructured data from our sense organs, our brain starts trying to make sense of it. We see stories everywhere. We even tell stories about ourselves, stitching causal histories composed of random fluctuations in hormone levels and neural pathway activation into neat little just-so tales about why we do the things we do. We are addicted to the story…
We build religions around this need to tell stories, we construct therapeutic models encouraging us to piece together the stories of our selves and, when it comes time for us to depict the world around us through art, we happily continue the pursuit – Building characters out of our woefully inaccurate folk psychological notions and marching them through worlds far more ordered and simple than our own. Sometimes we even confuse our understanding of the world with the world itself and write stories we claim to be ‘realistic’, ‘accurate’ or ‘authentic’. But all too often, what we take to be the world is just another story… a simplified and conveniently understandable abstraction. This poses a theoretical challenge to art : Can it ever capture the truth about the world, or is it necessarily a simplification of it? If it is possible then the chances are that the results will resemble something like Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog, a film about boy soldiers based upon the novel Johnny Chien Mechant by Emmanuel Dongala.
Johnny Mad Dog is filmed in Liberia but it is set in an unspecified African nation in the midst of a civil war opposing two broadly tribal factions. Its cast is made up almost entirely of actual child-soldiers. Young men who are reliving on film the kind of things they once did for real.
The world of the child-soldiers is an unflinchingly terrifying one. The boys are recruited when a gang of youths comes to their village. The village is tossed for food, weapons and money and the parents are lined up. The children are then separated from their parents and given a choice : Shoot your father and join the war, or be shot yourself. Those who choose to save their own lives are then welcomed into a world that is an endless chaotic churn. One in which they pumped full of drugs and made to dance around camp fires whilst chanting nihilistic slogans and empty political promises. They have no time to think, no time to reflect, no time to stop. They are kept in a constant state of homicidal rage by their handlers who fill their head not only with political rhetoric they cannot understand but mystical nonsense designed to keep them brave and ready to fight. In such a climate of sensory overload and unceasing movement and stimulation, the boys take on strange identities and noms de guerre. This is a world in which a young boy known as Butterfly wears wings on his back. Another named Pussycat goes into battle in a stolen wedding dress (complete with veil and elbow-length satin gloves). The leader of the group, Johnny Mad Dog (Christophe Minie) is festooned with brightly-coloured trinkets, beads and symbols. They protect him. The general told him so. When the boys are unleashed, they are not only merciless but utterly arbitrary… they scream slogans and kill almost at random. At one point, Mad Dog and his side-kick No Good Advice rape the TV news woman on the ground that she has been telling lies about them. They kill people for being looters only to rob the bodies, they kill a child for saying he has bananas in a bucket instead of oranges. They are the human embodiment of blind, unthinking, undirected rage.
Watching the scenes with Johnny Mad Dog and his companions is not a pleasant experience. Sauvaire shoots his child-soldiers in the same documentary style favoured by Paul Greengrass but, where Greengrass combines quick editing techniques with an awareness of backdrop and human context to make his violence exciting, Sauvaire’s violence is upsetting and difficult to sit through. We see the children running along firing guns but their battles are never accompanied by any kind of back and forth. The closest the film has to a sustained fight scene is the moment where the boys track down a sniper. Reminiscent of a similar scene in Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket (1987), the acts of violence on both sides are completely unromanticised. There is no sense of accomplishment to be had in killing the sniper and no illicit, vicarious thrill to be enjoyed by the audience. This is war presented not as a stage upon which glory is won, but rather as a vast hammer, relentlessly pounding away at the characters’ already battered humanity.
Sauvaire’s depiction of the savagery of the boy-soldiers is amplified by the film’s second strand. While Johnny Mad Dog is off killing and raping people, 13 year-old Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) is looking after her younger brother and her (literally) legless father. Laokole serves both as the bruised human face of the war and as a symbol of everything that Johnny Mad Dog is not. She wanders through the war-zone with an astonishing aura of pride and authority. She wears this pink top which, throughout the film, remains completely immaculate. As her brother and father die, she just keeps on going, even taking her own father to a graveyard in order to bury him before conducting a service herself. All alone in the world with no food, no money and no home, she takes it upon herself to adopt a young orphan girl. Where Mad Dog is lacking in humanity, Laokole seems to have almost too much of it.
However, this contrasts suggests a simplistic duality that is not actually present in the film. The boys are no more irredeemable killers than the girl is a blameless saint. By providing his audience with such moral categories, Sauvaire would be giving them the very islands of certainty he seems keen on denying them. For example, At one point, we see No Good Advice nearly break down in tears because the bigger boys decide to eat his pig. Similarly, when Mad Dog seduces a girl only to take up with another one at the victory party, the girl winds up dead and Mad Dog weeps over her body. These are not moments of Pauline moral conversion but rather means of emphasising how utterly fucked up the characters are. Neither No Good Advice nor Mad Dog are inhuman, they weep when bad things happen, it is just that when they have dried their tears they are happy to go back to shouting orders and killing people.
Sauvaire’s refusal to impose a moral or editorial framework upon the film’s events is very much to his credit. Had the characters been allowed some kind of redemption or the violence placed in some kind of Whiggish historical or political context then they would undeniably have been weakened. Indeed, when the third act rolls around, Sauvaire feels the need to comment more directly on the film’s subject matter and so he engineers a moment in which Mad Dog is told by his general that the war is over and he should now just go away and forget everything that he had done and learned. He then engineers a confrontation in which Mad Dog tries to seduce Laokole only to be beaten to a bloody pulp. It is tempting to see in this final scene an instance of redemption refused (boy told to leave army, boy tries to rebuild humanity by hooking up with humane girl, girl beats boy because of his inhumanity) or a more symbolic battle between chaos and the human spirit but this only serves to muddy the critical waters and, ultimately, weaken the coherence of the work. Johnny Mad Dog is a film of unimpeachable tonal and atmospheric control. Its refusal to settle down into a recognisable narrative shape speaks of a desire to allow the facts to speak for themselves, to force the audience to create their own stories on the way home rather than holding their hand and telling them what to think.
I’m not sure whether, on a philosophical level, Sauvaire’s film is any more ‘real’ than, say, Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (2001) but it certainly feels as though it is. Between the documentary-style filming, the elliptical narrative form and the rather minimalist performances of the cast, it feels devoid of conceit and artifice. It feels like the real thing and, as you might expect from a film with a subject matter as bleak as this one’s, it makes for a viscerally unpleasant and yet hugely rewarding and stimulating cinematic experience.
Very intersting piece Jonathan and one that taps into two subjects I’ve been chewing over.
The first is contained in Joan Didion’s beautiful title, ‘We Tell Ourselves Stories In Order To Live’. This seems to tap into the very coherence and order that a story brings to life – narrative is seductive because it orders the random chaos that swirls around us. This need for order is impossible to reject. For example, the degree to which a modern Western human subconciously interprets their entire life through the prism of a Christian heritage, even if they’re non-religious in their day to day life, remains extraordinary – we sense time possesses lineage through Christian teachings, that we’re actually working towards something (the promised land) even in the most ‘scientific’ and reactionary of political systems (Nazism, Communism). Similarly, our whole value system regarding sexuality spins on Christian ideas that are in the DNA of the culture, even if they have long been disarmed culturally. When someone stares at flesh we judge them socially, even if know we should judge them biologically. And when there is an attempt to reorder the past (Niall Ferguson’s revisionism for example, Darwin’s thoeries about evolution), it jars emotionally with because it attacks our narrative understanding of our existence in an utterly base and disturbing way. Explanations are a basic driving force in human life, and arguably distinguish from every other animal as much as anything. We certainly resent moving away from them by embracing radical new ideas about the past.
Secondly, your point about the degree to which a film can capture ‘truth’ has been bothering me of late on account of Michael Haneke and his almost hilarious rejection of Hollywood aesthetics. Haneke said he refuses to use a score because there wouldn’t be a score in real life so it distances his work from ‘the truth’. But surely this is simply a disingeous way to enhance the illusion that film ultimately always is? Because, in ‘reality’, there wouldn’t be multiple cameras, a script and actors either, let alone a director, so the banishment of music is actually just as complicit with manipulating the viewer as retaining it, because they both seek to achieve an artistic consequence.
When someone stares at flesh we judge them socially, even if know we SHOULDN’T judge them biologically.
Thanks for this review, Jonathan – the film certainly makes some interesting formal steps away from our ‘manifest image’ of what warfare is and the versions of humanity it throws up. However, I do think it is guilty of imposing a false narrative on the world it otherwise creates so well. Although JMD is not set in Liberia (it was filmed there), it wobbles from allegory to specificity on a couple of occasions – namely, its use of King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech and Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’. Quotations which I suppose are meant to draw our attention to the Civil Rights Movement, and so to the US, and so – in a roundabout way – to Liberia and the Second Civil War. This is all very shaky, and I think upsets what is otherwise, and very admirably, an allegory without a moral framework, as you suggested.
Thanks for the head’s up on the Didion collection. I’ve read her stuff but didn’t know that it was actually collected. I agree with everything you say, particularly about the durability of certain kinds of story. The language of the mind (beliefs, hopes, desires) is one such story but vaguely Christian notions are in there too (and, of course, Christianity is based upon even older stories).
Keep that kind of talk up for too long and we’ll wind up discussing memes ;-)
As for the film itself, yes. I actually have some more ideas (based on a Papst quote I stumbled across) and I’ll be writing them up soon.
Yes, I agree with you about the wobble and I think it’s mostly felt in the third act.
I took the speech and the use of the Simone track to be used as a point of comparison. the suggestion that Black people do not need to fight as, even in the face of injustice and oppression, they can still champion noble causes and produce great art. But it’s rather a broad point, similar to the comparison between Mad Dog and Laokole.
I think this attempt at editorialising does weaken the film as it’s incredibly awkward and really not that profound or insightful.
I wonder what the original book is like actually… does it have such an obvious disconnect between brutal realism and moralising? Dunno.
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