Johnny Mad Dog

Liberia (2008) Dir. Jean-Stéphane SauvaireL

In the African country of Liberia, a second civil war rages with the Liberians United for Reconciliation and Democracy (aka LURD) rebels wanting the current President removed from office. This film follows an army of LURD rebels made up of ten to fifteen year-olds as they launch their attack on the capital of Monrovia to fulfil their cause.

This is not an easy film to watch. That’s needs to be established straight away. Yet it is as compelling a watch as it is a difficult one. There is no sugar coating the contest – this is about child soldiers who are frighteningly proficient and well versed in the art of war that one could easily forget they are kids. Some wear juvenile outfits such as butterfly wings or a wedding dress one boy stole from the house of the man his squad executed moments later. They have equally playful nicknames such as the titular Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie), No Good Advice (Dagbeth Tweh), Jungle Rocket (Eric Cole), Small Devil (Barry Chernoh), Dust To Dust (Prince Doblah) and Never Die (Joseph Duo). Their motto: “Don’t wanna die? Don’t be born!” These juvenile warriors rape, pillage and vandalise with abandon, shooting at the slightest hint of “Dogo” (the enemy) presence, breaking into homes and taking what they want without any sign of contrition.

This film may be based on the novel Johnny Chien Méchant by Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala but the truth is child soldiers are not a work of fiction. Even today you’ll find kids in Africa and the Middle East who are handier with an AK48 than they are a Nintendo Wii controller. With the cast comprising of similar aged non-professional actors and the close camera style of filming, there is a terrifying air of legitimacy about this film that doesn’t fail to send a shiver down one’s spine. Such is the accuracy and verisimilitude of the kids’ military actions and the all too convincing relish at which their attack their roles, one can be forgiven for thinking they are watching a documentary or newsreel footage.

There is little in the way of a plot, the nearest being the plight of a studious young girl Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) who is forced to try and flee the onslaught of the rebels with her younger brother Fofo (Onismus Kamoh) and their invalid father. The latter is shot and eventually dies while the former goes missing. Laokole is the leveller of the film; her first meeting with Mad Dog whilst hiding on a desolate staircase with Fofo sees the gun toting thug have a sudden change of heart and lets them go. They meet again later in the film and again, Laokole is afforded more courtesy than anyone else and escape violence after standing up to Mad Dog. Her rage is different from those of the rebels but Laokole is the closest thing to a beacon of hope in a film with no heroes and no true sense of justice to be found anywhere.

Aside from the bloodshed, shouting, foul language, physical and sexual abuse there are a few moments to remind us of the immaturity and dare I say it “humanity” of our teenage terrors. After discovering an Uzi, which Mad Dog reports is used in Israel as well as by Chuck Norris in his films, Mad Dog warns “Be careful! Watch out for Israelis or Chuck Norris!” Later No Good Advice takes a live pig from a looter and carries it on his shoulders everywhere they go. When the group gets hungry, he refuses to kill the pig having apparently – though not admitted – grown attached to the porcine passenger. Aside from these moments every other action belies their youthful years be it violent, sexual or military.

Johnny Mad Dog is a stunningly powerful and shocking film. It will leave you cold but you won’t be able to tear your eyes from the screen. The end credits show photos of what look to be genuine child soldiers and the results of their actions to provide an unsettling conclusion to an unforgettable film experience. This is a film that needs to be seen but is not easily recommended for all.