Most horror movies play off of irrational fears of the supernatural. I enjoy them immensely, but they’re not the ones that frighten me the most. True horror comes from situations that can actually happen, from people who are genuinely capable of evil. Johnny Mad Dog, adapted from Emmanuel Dongala’s novel Johnny Chien Méchant, is an authentically horrific film. It draws on events from the Second Liberian Civil War, specifically when a rebel group supported by Guinea called the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (LURD) sieged the capital of Monrovia in 2003. Around 1,000 people were killed during this period. Thousands more were displaced from their homes.
Any filmmaker can depict this. It takes real skill, however, to capture it so realistically that it virtually defies description. When it was over, I was sure that I had seen a great movie, but I had no idea how to process the experience. For the first time, it seemed as if a film was actually happening to me; my mind was tricked into believing the story up on the screen was real, and I was somehow involved with it rather than just sitting in a theater. There were times when I came close to believing I wasn’t watching a film, but rather some kind of disturbing documentary; this is only heightened by the rough camerawork, the war-torn locations, and the casting unknowns, some of which are rumored to have been real child soldiers.
There’s a scene early in the film in which child soldiers, who are essentially feral, prepare for battle during a ritual campfire. Their bodies are washed, and chicken blood is used to paint crosses on their biceps. As their leader sermonizes about how this is their war, another soldier in the distance empties gun cartridges of their shot; the blanks are reloaded into the machine gun, which is then given to a general, who fires a few rounds at a line of unprotected soldiers. They’re all unharmed. “Well guys,” says the general, “you have seen it for yourselves. From now on, you are bulletproof!” Everyday people would probably through this display. But these children have been brainwashed to the point that they actually believe they’re invincible. Many of them are teenagers, but some look as young ten or eleven.
Most child soldiers, who are chosen because they’re readily available and easily manipulated, are forced into fighting for various reasons. Some simply fear for their lives. Others want revenge against rival groups that killed their families. A lot of them live on a diet of drugs and alcohol, all of which are pushed onto them until they become an addiction. And then there are the psychological aspects, the continuous exposure to hatred, violence, rape, and murder. Much of this scarring material is revealed at a distance, in effect downplaying the seriousness of the situation. This isn’t a criticism. If anything, the filmmakers take great care in the way they represent this kind of material. These kids don’t view death and destruction as anything to be feared. I’m hard pressed to say they have a basic understanding of the concepts.
The film, which takes place in an unnamed African country during a civil war, follows Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie) as he and his militia of children march towards the capital city. Intertwined with this is the story of a local girl named Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy), who struggles to find a safe haven for her little brother, Fofo (Onismus Kamoh), and her father, who has no legs and must be taken place to place with a wheelbarrow. She and Johnny will come face to face twice. The first is a completely random moment, but the second is a showdown, and when it ends, I honestly didn’t know if I had witnessed a victory or a tragedy. At a certain point, Laokole must make a choice; whatever she decides to do will be symbolic, perhaps of humanity’s capacity for good, perhaps of its irredeemably evil nature.
We’re continuously shown images of battle, but I don’t believe Johnny Mad Dog is a film about war. To me, it’s about failure; we have countries that can’t maintain a workable system of government, peoples that cannot resolve conflicts without resorting to violence, leaders who exploit innocent children for their own gain, and a world that by in large remains ignorant. This movie is a small but important step towards humanizing these atrocities. I don’t want to be a pessimist and say we’re too far gone, although it would be simplistic and downright inappropriate of me to claim that there’s a solution. Governments can intervene, laws can be imposed, and guilty parties can be removed or altogether eliminated, but a radical evolution of thought is not something that can be forced. Then again, if we force others to believe as we do, are we really any better than them?