DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: SUNDANCE REPORT #3: Johnny Mad Dog

Saturday, 17 January 2009

SUNDANCE REPORT #3: Johnny Mad Dog

Johnny Mad Dog (2008) dir. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Starring: Christophe Main, Daisy Victoria Vandy


Despite numerous brutal African civil wars in the past decade, no one has successfully captured the brutality of the atrocities in Rwanda or Liberia or the Sudan. Johnny Mad Dog seizes this claim with uncompromising vicious force. Jean-Stephane Sauvaire doesn’t soften anything and shows us with extreme cynicism exactly the kind of senseless violence which resulted in millions of civilian deaths.

The film opens with a particularly harrowing scene, in an unknown African country, a group of armed rebels storm a village looking for young children. They find one innocent young boy and force him to shoot his own father. The idea is that the militia will take the child in his formative years and bring them up to be sadistic followers of the regime. This is what happened to Mad Dog, the leader of a platoon of young boys aged 8-15. Mad Dog is a loyal deputee to his gang leader, and in the closed-in world of his militia family he is a successful and ambitious soldier.

Over the course of the film we watch Mad Dog and his fellow youngsters terrorize, maim, kill and rape their way across the country in the name of his tribe’s revolution. Concurrently we get to see the journey of young Laokole whose parents were recently killed by Mad Dog and now seeks to reconnect with her missing younger brother.

In the opening scene the film announces itself with muscular force. Mad Dog and his mates shout and yell and fire their guns in an effort to frighten the shit out of the villagers. It’s a highly effective method of chaotic terrorism. The tribe moves through the villages with the speed of a Nazi blitzkrieg. The director employs a Greengrass-style shaky camera to compliment the madness.

While the film is not social realism in the European version of the trend, Sauvare’s cinematic world is completely believable. When put in the reality of the life of Mad Dog there is not much optimism to find. Surviving in this world means being more ruthless, unemotional and detached than your enemy. Men and women are no longer seen as such, they are treated like animals to be herded, and killed if necessary.

A brief glimmer of optimism does emerge in the final act. Unexpectedly Mad Dog is saddened by a loss in his life. Only seen by the audience his shell is cracked revealing something resembling humanism inside. At the same time, as the U.N. takes over the area and stunts the rebels activities, suddenly Mad Dog find himself outside the only world he’s ever known. When his loyalty is rejected the disappointment on his face is palpable – a small form of comeuppance for his tragic life of violence.

The definitive image of the film is after the opening scene when we see the troop of boys strutting down the village road each wearing some form of costume: angel wings, a Mohawk, and the most absurd, a wedding dress. Absurdities like this which arise from senseless violence achieves the same tone as “Full Metal Jacket” or “Apocalypse Now”. In time we may well be talking about “Johnny Mad Dog” in the company of some of these great films about war. Enjoy.

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