Rooftop Films @ Sundance: Johnny Mad Dog Review


Jean-Stephane Sauvaire once directed a documentary about the soldiers of FARC (the revolutionary army in Colombia), and brought the same intensity and intimacy to his narrative film about a loose battalion of child soldiers in Liberia, Johnny Mad Dog. The opening sequence, with a murder that is stomach-churning for its ability to bring an deep and meaningful emotional resonance within seconds, thrusts you into the flashing chaos of these young killers’ lives — tight shots, loud noises, a battering of screamed and chanted dialogue, and constant tension and violence. There are but a few moments throughout the film when things slow down to anything less than a swirl of combat, yet stunningly there are still details that will haunt you. The ritual and chanting, a combination of tribal shamanism and US Marine songs, cuts deep into your head — the boys primary mantra being, “Don’t want to die? / Don’t be born!” The images of child soldiers, wearing wigs, wedding dresses, and monster masks as talismanic protectors, these gorgeously composed shots are the stuff of nightmares. And when a non-soldier boy, or a news anchor-woman, or even a UN soldier, feels helpless and terrified encountering these mysteriously inhumane child soldiers, that feeling is thrust equally upon the audience.

And yet, the real challenge of the film for the viewer is not surviving the violence (as in a horror film), but finding the humanity. It comes across most clearly in some of the nearly surreal sections of the film. When one of the craziest, most deadly boys adopts a pig and his commander demands he slaughter it, there’s a fleeting moment in which he seems to understand loss, perhaps a revelation relative to his human victims. For the audience, there is the reminder that these are just kids, who in another society would be barely beginning to learn values, morals, and social interaction. Here they are learning with machine guns and drugs, with ritual and peer pressure driving them to rape and murder.

Sauvaire cast real veterans of the war as the children, and in the Q & A following the screening, he described the dazed confusion and isolation these boys suffer. They lack a true sense of guilt because they lack a real understanding of what they did. Many, Sauvaire said, claim they don’t know if they killed anyone — “I shot him, and he fell down, but I don’t know if he died,” they will say. And yet, they are outcasts in society for what they have done. When asked if it was traumatic for them to re-live these aspects of their lives, Sauvaire acknowledged that they will forever be traumatized, and yet the boys and the people of Liberia were eager to recreate the war as a way of telling their story to the world, and perhaps as a cleansing rehabilitation. The former child soldiers themselves were proud to show they could do something other than kill, but who knows how far this film could actually go toward rebuilding their lives. Sauvaire has a desire to help these kids, and has established the Johnny Mad Dog Foundation. Whether or not the film and the foundation can create much more positive change may depend on the brave viewers and thinkers who are willing and able to see the humanity behind the horror.

(For another interesting take on African wars and Westerner’s ability to witness, engage, and help, read my review of Reporter, too.)

– Mark Elijah Rosenberg, Founder & Artistic Director of Rooftop Films