: In a film based on the novel by Emmanuel Dongala
, cross-dressing child soldiers high on drugs are fighting a war in an unknown African country.
: Johnny Mad Dog
is a brutal, haunting film that is based on the real-life phenomenon of children being recruited as soldiers in wars across Africa. Child soldiers are not unique to Africa, but what is unique to the largest continent in the world is the history of colonization, which has sparked massive civil wars. The movie tackles the horror of war and childhood, acknowledging that these villains are victims of circumstance.
The highlight of Johnny Mad Dog
is the acting; this is a showcase for undiscovered talent. These unknown actors are so real you almost feel as if you're watching an episode of Frontline
. There is a rage in their eyes, a stress in their facial movements, that makes them look possessed. However, there is a reason that the performances resonate so strongly -- many of the actors were former child soldiers, and the movie was filmed right in Liberia, where a war like this took place. I'm not sure how healthy it is for teen actors to relive this horror for the cameras, but the French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
said it was "therapy" for the kids. Christopher Minie
, who plays the leader of the pack, Johnny Mad Dog, carries the film. This is an actor moviegoers can only hope to see more of.
Sauvaire captures the visuals and highlights the actors, but unlike City of God
, the storyline here doesn't have much polish. Many of the scenes just cut to more blood and gore, similar to a horror film. The characters aren't fleshed-out enough, which leaves the viewer wanting more. The anticlimactic ending, one of those "it's your interpretation" scenarios, feels like a bust, but it doesn't ruin the whole film.
One aspect that is never discussed is the reason why many of the soldiers are cross-dressing. One kills in a wedding dress, another rocks a Nicki Minaj
-like wig, and some wear masks. According to a 2003 article from Slate.com, "Cross-dressing is a military mind game, a tactic that instills fear in their rivals. It also makes the soldiers feel more invincible. This belief is founded on a regional superstition which holds that soldiers can 'confuse the enemy's bullets' by assuming two identities simultaneously."
More than anything, Johnny Mad Dog
will help continue a conversation on the terror child soldiers face in countries like Liberia
and Sudan. It's a film that I would recommend-- it's educational, truthful and important.
Johnny Mad Dog
is playing in select cities now. For New Yorkers, the film plays for only two more nights, Wednesday January 26th and Jan 27th at 7pm and 9pm.