JOHNNY MAD DOG B+
France Liberia Belgium (93 mi) 2008 ‘Scope d: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Southern trees bear strange fruit,
Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
Pastoral scene of the gallant South,
The bulging eyes and the twisted mouth,
Scent of magnolia sweet and fresh,
Then the sudden smell of burning flesh!
Here is fruit for the crows to pluck,
For the rain to gather, for the wind to suck,
For the sun to rot, for the trees to drop,
Here is a strange and bitter crop
—Billie Holiday-Strange fruit- HD - YouTube (3:03), 1939
In the opening ten minutes of this movie the audience witnesses child murders and a rape, where a family comes under the attack of young rebel forces, an armed band of roving children carrying heavy weaponry and shouting foul obscenities, searching for food, government soldiers, money, and other children to recruit, forcing the family to submit at gunpoint, which includes ordering a young pre-teen son to either shoot his father or be killed, a rite of passage many of them have experienced first hand. Africa is a continent that knows continual strife from the everpresent eruptions of violent and bloody civil wars, where the worst African scenario involves the conscription of young children who are kidnapped by warlords or local militias and sent off to the front, usually hopped up on drugs carrying AK-47 assault rifles, oftentimes never seeing their families again as they have been killed and their villages burned during the many massacres. One of the more controversial books written on the subject centers on the fighting in Sierre Leone, an autobiographical account written by a child soldier who was abducted at age 13 and is called A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah, though many have questioned the historical accuracy of a child’s recollections. This movie was shot in Liberia without ever identifying a country of origin, as the director instead relies on the viewer’s familiarity with a history of horrific African atrocities in Rwanda, Liberia, or the Sudan.
This film is a searingly raw and graphically realistic docudrama that follows one band of rebel soldiers under the command of 15-year old Johnny Mad Dog (Christophe Minie), who serves ‘Colonel Never Die’ (Joseph Duo), a mythical warlord who has recruited and trained them all, a fierce disciplinarian who instills uniformity through repeated profanity-laced mantras that are memorized and constantly shouted back in unison, especially during raids, a kind of military call back that mimics boot camp behavior. But most peculiarly, the children wear whatever they have collected and picked up from their raids, which amazingly includes a pair of angel’s wings on one soldier, a red T-shirt claiming “It’s Better in the Bahamas,” a Crucifix, a white wedding dress, colorful wigs, a crash helmet, and what appear to be strands of Mardi Gras beads around the neck of Mad Dog. This rag tag crew, many of whom are themselves former child soldiers from Liberia, look dressed for a photo shoot before a break dance contest instead of guerrilla warfare military attire. To prepare them for battle, they are given an assortment of pep pills, most likely amphetamines and large doses of cocaine rubbed into their wounds to keep them wired, medicine that the children are led to believe will keep them invincible. As they enter a nearby city, Mad Dog is ordered to take out and secure the state-controlled TV station, where the female news anchor is immediately terrorized and raped by two different rebel soldiers.
There is a parallel storyline that includes Mad Dog’s chosen girlfriend that he calls Lovelita (Careen Moore), who he simply picks out of a group of fleeing civilian refugees, who is the closest thing to someone or something that he actually cares about, as otherwise these rebels show no regard whatsoever for human life and are in every sense of the word a terror organization, perhaps best expressed in a street scene with a young kid carrying oranges who they assume is an enemy soldier, and who they treat with full contempt. As they move through the deserted streets openly chanting their victory songs, they are caught by sniper fire, a riveting scene reminiscent of Kubrick’s FULL METAL JACKET (1987), where they systematically track down the line of fire, firing off celebratory bullets into the air afterwards. Simultaneously the camera follows the tragic storyline of 16 year-old Laokolé (Daisy Victoria Vandy), who tries to move her legless father and little brother away from the advancing rebel assault, who is continually seen walking through the perilously dangerous city streets, carrying her wounded father in a wheelbarrow to the United Nations hospital, eventually losing both, a prevailing theme in this adrenaline-laced portrait of a world gone mad, where there is no order but unending terror and chaos, where even if the rebels were to succeed, it’s inconceivable to even consider their capacity to lead, as they were designed to seek and destroy and have little use in the actual rebuilding of the country. They are instead the haunting and tragic reminders of the ugly scars of war.
Jackson Tennessee Fourgeaud's profoundly unsettling score casts a pall over the bloodbath of horrors, framing what we see in a new and different light, offering an anguishing perspective that respects both the living and the dead, where at one point a rebel soldier’s radio strapped to his back carries a Martin Luther King speech about the history and ramifications of slavery, making a strange historical connection to these young children of war who have been uprooted from their homes and severed from their families literally for centuries, always serving the agenda of larger unseen powers. One of the more moving sequences is a seemingly spontaneous song that one soldier sings after the death of his fellow comrade. The film is an unending stream of screams, chants, songs, taunts, and slogans, all signs of propaganda and uneducated youth, as they may not be able to read, but their choral chants can instill bone-chilling fear. Surprisingly, the most profoundly moving segment is the end credit sequence, set to a quiet, searingly personal Nina Simone rendition of “Strange Fruit,” Strange Fruit Nina Simone Version - YouTube (3:28), an achingly graphic portrait of a Southern lynching made famous by Billie Holiday. This connection to the roots of the slave trade is particularly effective, as are the chilling archival photos of child soldiers dressed up for war, proud to be seen photographed on a roadside lined with lingering images of atrocities and death.