Friday, January 21, 2011

JOHNNY MAD DOG, from Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, opens at Anthology Film Archives

We've heard about the "child soldiers" of Africa, seen them in various documentaries, and most recently in Claire Denis' narrative White Material. Until you've viewed JOHNNY MAD DOG, however, they'll not have registered with the maximum force that Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire brings to this film, his first full-length narrative feature, which he directed and adapted from the novel by Emmanuel Dongala. M. Sauvaire, shown below, has made a few documentar-ies in his day, and he draws upon non-narrative techniques to bring his film to immediate, immense and frightening life.

We're thrust into things from the first frame and the pace seldom lets up for the full 98-minute running time. We see from the outset the ruthlessness of these child soldiers/killers/savages as they "take" an enclave of citizens and do with them what they will. From their midst, they recruit a young boy (in the pink shirt below), forcing him to do something that, whatever else may happen to him, will set his life askew forever.

Initially, it is difficult to sympa-thize with any of these walking horrors. You hate them; you want them dead. One of the surprises of Johnny Mad Dog, which doubles as the name of the leading character (on poster, top) is that as the film moves along, almost all the boys begin to humanize, even as their actions remain disgusting, abominable. This makes for an acute tension that, I think, renders the movie more difficult to fully embrace, even as you admire its skill and impact.

There is a doomed negativity to almost eveything in the film, star-ting with the names given to its killer children -- Johnny Mad Dog, of course, and No Good Advice, Small Devil, Nasty Plastic and Dust to Dust.  Probably the most positive of these would be Never Die -- except the single saying the boys most often chant is this: "Don't wanna die?  Never be born."  While that is utterly true, of course, it's not the kind of slogan you'd want your kid to grow up on.

There is no narration nor real exposition to this movie: You are thrown into the midst of it and must find your own footing. Two stories are present in the film -- that of Johnny and his crew, who are told by their leader to "take" a section of a town. We also meet the young girl Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy, above), trying to care for her amputee father and younger brother.  The two stories will come together briefly, part, and then join again at the conclusion -- which will not perhaps be the conclusion that you wanted.

Along the way, the film almost becomes a romance, as Johnny (a riveting performance by Christopher Minie. above center) puts his not-quite-mature "moves" on the only female member of his band, Lovelita (Careen Moore). There's a highly unusual scene here in which rape turn into to lovemaking on both parties' part.
Full of odd. specific details that almost defy description but not believability (the white wedding dress one young solider-- above, center -- discovers, dons and wears for the remainder of the movie) or the song that the youngest, most delicate soldier Butterfly (Mohammed Sesay, shown at left) sings to their newly dead "comrade" (a boy who never even got to hold a real weapon before meeting his death).

There are so many ironies present here that, were not the movie so consis-tently riveting, you might mistake it for some kind of overdone satire. No: This is a reality that you can only hope you and your loved one will never experience.

The cinematography (by Marc Koninckx), when you have time to stop and notice, is often extraordinary, with some of the citiscapes (above) as breathtaking as the verdant countryside. And this has got to be one of the most surprising uses, yet not out of line, of the song Strange Fruit, sung by Nina Simone, that you'll have heard.

Johnny Mad Dog, from IFC Films, opens today, Friday, January 21, at Anthology Film Archives for a one week run. Performances are at 7 and 9pm daily, with an extra 5pm screening Saturday & Sunday.

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