Straddling the line between education and exploitation, Johnny Mad Dog is a visually sumptuous, sometimes stagy story about beautiful children doing horrible things. Based on a novel about child soldiers by Congolese writer Emmanuel Dongala, it's set in an unnamed African country engulfed by civil war. Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie), a gorgeous 15-year-old who was conscripted into the rebel army when he was 10, takes his orders from the only adult we ever see on his side of the conflict. Johnny is in charge of a ferocious contingent of soldiers who are mostly even younger than he is. Like the marauders of some post-apocalyptic road movie come to life, they trudge past burned-out cars and smoldering trash or pile onto carjacked trucks to spread terror in the name of freedom. Amped up by their general's constant yelling, the drugs he feeds them, and the chants he leads ("You don't wanna die? Don't be born!") and costumed in things they loot along the way, like the wire-frame wings that earn one boy the nickname Butterfly, they play at being "death dealers" until the role becomes real.
At its best, Johnny Mad Dog bears witness to the horrific abuse perpetrated against and by child soldiers. I've read about most of the atrocities it depicts, but even so it was wrenching to watch child actors, some of them former child soldiers themselves, act out the killing, rape, and terrorizing of civilians. It's also a stark reminder that the rules of war are made to be broken, and that even "legitimate" armies are made up mostly of soldiers not much older or less impressionable than Johnny. These feral kids' earnest imitations of Hollywood hard guys are also a reminder of how Western weapons and war imagery have spread, a cancer that has infected the whole world.
But at its worst, like when a stiffly self-conscious Butterfly sings a bawdy GI death dirge over a dead comrade's body, flicking glances at the camera, Johnny Mad Dog feels awkwardly staged or didactic. The story of a stoic young civilian trying to escape the rebel troops with her little brother and her legless father, which is intercut and periodically intersects with Johnny's, is so underdeveloped that she feels like a symbol clumsily inserted in a realistic movie, more ghost than girl as she wheels her father through city streets. And a simpleminded attempt to assign the blame for the war falls flat in a scene where the kids file past a cemetery while a long passage from Martin Luther King Jr.'s speech from the Mall booms forth.
Worse yet, director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire sometimes seems to be getting off on the brutality he's depicting. When he exoticizes an ecstatic nighttime dance around a bonfire or uses slo-mo, stutter cuts, and a curtain of sound to dramatize the kids' point of view as they open fire on a town, he completes the circle, turning the dreams of these Hollywood-worshipping kids back into cinematic glamour.
The scourge of child soldiers is a 21st century scandal, and closing our eyes to the facts won't make them go away. But I'm not sure how it helps to bathe in images like these, either. Is Johnny Mad Dog part of the problem or part of the solution?
January 21-27 at Anthology Film Archives