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Films that explore what it's like to be a child soldier


250,000 child soldiers are estimated to be active in the world today. All this horror is happening because of the many armed conflicts tearing societies apart around the world. Many films have tried to render this reality. Some have created poignant depictions of childhood trauma, others have veered too far into voyeurism. 

Anytime a filmmaker approaches this subject, however, the goal should be to go beyond the violence to explore issues that are often overlooked: gender-based violence, exploitation of resource-rich nations, nation building, the complexity of childhood emotion and the absurdity of war.

Here are a few films that get it right:

Kim Nguyen’s War Witch

Conflict summary: 

While no specific location is mentioned in the film, there are references to the metallic ore, "coltan" or columbite-tantalite, found in cell phones. Mines in The Democratic Republic of the Congo supply 60% of the world’s supply of Coltan, a major source of conflict in the region.

This film is dynamic and surreal in its perspective.  The story is told through the eyes of Komona, a 12 year-old girl, who must mature and survive as she navigates her dangerous world.  Komona has been pulled into the violence of two groups: the government vs. the rebels, neither of which she pledges her allegiance to. Her internal conflict is what drives the movie. In the opening scene, the audience watches her escape from her village into the forest, after her village is ransacked and her parents killed. Through hallucinations, fueled by drugs (rebel groups will often drug children, Sierra Leon’s Revolutionary United Front (RUF) is infamous for drugging their child-counterparts), Komona becomes a member of the rebel group.

What the movie gets right: Today, 40% of child soldiers are girls. Nguyen’s choice to use Komona as the movie’s narrator shows that the unending multitude of horrors of war extend longer when girls and women are involved. Rape and gender-based violence are addressed throughout.

Cary Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation:

Beasts of No Nation tracks the deterioration of an unknown West African society through the indoctrination of young boy named Agu into a violent rebel group. 

At the start of the movie, Agu happily lives with his family, blissfully unaware of the conflict raging on the horizon. Soon, the war invades his town and Agu finds himself alone, desperately wandering through a forest. The rest of the movie follows Agu's descent into the clutches of the rebel group. 

What the movie gets right: Child soldiers are not irredeemable monsters. Even while in rebel groups they act with playful innocence at times. The crimes that they commit are less a function of hardened hatred or conviction and more a function of being kids malleable with fear. When child soldiers escape battle, they can be rehabilitated and regain their youthful optimism. 

Beasts of No Nation does a good job at showing this complexity and plasticity of emotion. 

Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog:

Conflict summary:

The Liberian civil war technically started in 1989 after Charles Taylor, accompanied by hundreds of rebels, overthrew then-president Samuel Doe. The civil war stretched throughout the 1990’s and took on new dimensions when Taylor regained office and pitted various rebel groups against one another, all as he exploited Liberia’s national resources. In August of 2003, rebel groups overtook Taylor’s mansion, overthrowing him as president again. In September 2013, Taylor, was charged and found guilty of 11 crimes of war including rape and the use of child soldiers.

Johnny Mad Dog’s story begins in the final weeks of the Liberian Civil War:

It is 2003 and a “Small Boys Unit” is tearing through Liberia’s towns and villages, recruiting, looting and terrorizing as they prepare to take the capital, Monrovia, and overthrow warlord-president Charles Taylor. The soldiers, boys between the ages of 10 to 15, are dressed in outlandish outfits that include angel wings and a wedding dress. They have names like "Johnny Mad Dog," "No Good Advice" and "Jungle Rocket" and are depicted as being feral and bloodthirsty, a characteristic cemented as they execute civilians for weapon practice.

What the movie gets right: Sauvaire shows that child soldiers are both the victims and the perpetrators of war. While characters are mostly one-sided and portrayed as "damaged goods," there are instances where Johnny shows that he'ss capable of being loving, even if the moment is incredibly short-lived.  

Child soldiers are often thought of as robotic killing machines. But this is a misleading and harmful representation. Child soldiers are, first and foremost, victims of circumstance. Beyond this, child soldiers are an incredibly diverse group. They do, however, generally retain signature traits of childhood amid all the violence they experience. 

Good cinematic depictions of child soldiers account for this complexity. But good films also spur the world to action to intervene on behalf of these children.  

In 2013, the United Nations provided a plan that would eliminate the use of child soldiers by 2016, nations including:  South Sudan, Myanmar, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Afghanistan and Chad have already signed their commitment. As Global Citizens, we can commit to help in rehabilitating and reintegrating these adolescents by making schools in emergencies and conflict zones are reality.