The plight of child soldiers, especially in Africa, has captured world attention through news reports and personal accounts. Last year, Ismael Beah's book, A Long Way Gone, about his experiences in Sierra Leone, was a bestseller. Now a film by Nigerian-born director Newton Aduaka explores the psychological and social face of the problem, by telling the fictional story of one young victim kidnapped into a rebel force. It will screen commercially in New York for two weeks in February, and also play at Los Angeles’s Pan-African Film Festival.
“I felt I had to do a film that not just showed you about war, but that put you in the center of what it was like,” Newton Aduaka says. His second feature film, “Ezra,” opens on a peaceful scene: a small boy walking to school, his older sister already at her desk, gazing out the window occasionally, as if looking for her brother.
Suddenly, the school yard is invaded by fighters dressed in camouflage uniforms. They grab a number of children, including six-year-old Ezra, and march them into the bush to the rebel camp. One little boy will not stop crying, and in one of the film’s most horrifying moments, the rebel commander tells a subordinate to give him the “VIP” treatment. He is shot dead on the spot.
Mr. Aduaka says that incident was not in the screenplay as he first wrote it. “That is something one of the children told me. I felt something was missing. There was no reason to show why these kids stayed on. But when you see that -- of course you fall in line, you don't ask questions any more from that point on,” he said.
The film moves from Ezra's ten years as a boy soldier until 2002, after peace, when he appears before a truth and reconciliation tribunal. It shows how Ezra and the other children are indoctrinated into the cause of killing, and even injected with methamphetamines to energize and disorient them.
“You can fight for four days nonstop,” Ezra tells the tribunal, about the nights when his commander drugged the child soldiers. “You have no fear, you feel nothing. You become the gun. You are the AK-47. Your conscience is not there. You are not human." The presiding investigator asks him, “So you don't remember how many or who you killed?” Ezra answers, “No.”
Ezra also remembers nothing about the night in which his rebel faction attacked his own village, an attack in which his parents were killed and his sister gravely injured. Much of the film is about the human relationships of the child soldiers, despite their brutalization. Ezra's sister is loyal to him despite her knowledge that he was among the attacking rebels. Ezra also falls in love and marries a girl soldier, eventually trying to flee the country with her and his sister.
The cast includes Sierra Leoneans, Ugandans, Rwandans and Malians, as well as European and Americans of African descent. Most had not acted before, and two had actually been child soldiers. The director, who says the story is based on the Sierra Leone conflict, interviewed a number of child soldiers before he wrote his screenplay. They became a major source, he says, “especially three kids that I met that let me into their souls, so to speak. I met a lot of children, but a lot of them would tell me about exterior things, but not about what was going on in the inside."
Aduaka says the film tries to show that colonialism set the stage for the African conflicts in which 15 million have died in the past half-century. He notes that European powers carved Africa into artificial nations and armed all sides of the wars that followed. “I was interested in what brought about this violence,” he says. “Where is it coming from? It is being fed by arms dealers, by people who are mostly westerners. The AK-47 is not made in Africa,” he says.
“Ezra” makes the case that healing for individuals and societies can begin only after a truthful accounting is made, and forgiveness sought. But it does not end on a hopeful note, and the director says he is not optimistic for many of the former child soldiers. “I always say that if this happened to a child in the West, they would be in therapy for the rest of their natural lives,” he says. “They will cope, because they have to. But I know what they are carrying with them, they are carrying this thing with them, and they will have to deal with it.”