Cary Fukunaga’s Beasts Of No Nation premiered here tonight in Competition, marking the first high-profile title in the section and a first for Netflix which acquired the film in March for a reported $12M. Previously having toiled in original documentaries, the streaming giant’s drama is the first narrative feature the company is launching as a major presence in awards season. From Venice, it will travel to Telluride and then to Toronto — Netflix CCO, Ted Sarandos, who has been here on the Lido, was leaving today for Colorado. Beasts becomes available online and opens in Landmark theaters in 19 markets on October 16. Reviews have been positive and applause met the first press screening.
It is nevertheless a harrowing look at child soldiers in Africa which is adapted from the 2005 book by Uzodinma Iweala. Beasts was shot by True Detective and Jane Eyre director Fukunaga in Ghana. He was in town today with young star Abraham Attah who plays Agu, a boy in an unnamed African country who sees his mother and sister sent away from his increasingly unstable hometown and his father and brother shortly murdered. From there, Agu heads deep into the Bush and is recruited by a group of rebel forces led by Idris Elba’s Commandant.
Elba did not appear in Venice, but Fukunaga said his character was drawn from a real rebel leader he had met in Haiti while helping the relief effort.
Fukunaga, who had a poly-sci/history background before going to NYU Film School, said he had always been interested in geopolitics and conflict zones in neo-Colonial countries. When he went to NYU, he “entered with a treatment of a story” that was similar in nature to Beasts. It was later that he discovered the book, from which the film departs somewhat.
Asked a question about comparisons to ISIS and the recruitment process of forces that use child soldiers, he said “ISIS was just really starting to dominate headlines by the time we were in pre-production. One thing that’s certain is there are similarities between ISIS and any other indoctrination fighting forces.” For Beasts, the production based the recruitment, a mixture of threats, empowerment and coddling, on an initiation process used by a Sierra Leone tribe called the Commodores.
Attah, whose character goes from impish to vengeful and back, was chosen in part because he “showed he had access to his emotions.” In all, the production saw 600 kids and cast some from Liberia who had participated in war at a very young age.
While there was concern about having these young men, even if they had seen atrocities themselves, reenact violent killings that could be traumatic for them, Fukunaga said “Movies in their execution are so slowed down and fractured… What you feel on set is nowhere near as intense as when you see it on screen.” The film is “violent when you see it, but in the moment (of shooting) you would never guess how violent it is.”
With many films in Venice shining light on real-life stories, Fukunaga was asked if exposing the plight of child soldiers can bring attention to the subject. “Child soldiers is a tough one because there’s no one policy that can just end it. Movies do have the power to create awareness and positive change,” he said. But, the issue is the way in which conflict is waged now — the irregular nature of fighting forces. “That kind of warfare is its own sort of industry… As soon as there is a rebellion, the government doesn’t have control of laws.”
Asked about Netflix’s power to change the distribution landscape, Fukunaga noted it has already changed. “It’s very hard to get a film exhibited nowadays. It’s hard to get your film into a theater… and then to get people to know it’s there in the first place.” To get people to go to the cinema is “really difficult unless you’ve got something giant that has spectacle or word of mouth behind it. I think that’s out of our control. We’re in an interesting democratic moment of cinema attendance whereby the very nature of showing up to a screening, we’ll be showing exhibitors that we would be willing to watch these films.”