Saturday, August 29, 2009

Giffoni Film Festival’s Best: Johnny Mad Dog

After the massive international film festivals of Cannes and Karlovy Vary, Southern Italy's Giffoni Film Festival stands out as a decidedly different and very surprising experience. As the world's largest children's film festival, the two week long event draws over 3000 kids, aged 3 to 18, from around the world to the tiny village of Giffoni Valle Piana. These participants not only had the opportunity to watch films, they also served as jury members - a position typically held only by imminent persons in the industry. Complementing this unprecedented responsibility was a slate of films far removed from the typical Disney family-friendly fare. These productions, particularly in the older age brackets, often pulled no punches when dealing with Giffoni's central theme, taboo. Its best film, the sublimely executed and shocking Johnny Mad Dog, sheds light on the modern day tragedy of the child soldier by unveiling how each fighter is still very much a youth at heart. The film's underlying compassion towards these fighters only magnifies the horror of their plight.

During the Liberian Civil Wars (1989–1996; 1999-2003), the rebels against the government violently abducted the countryside's children and forced them to fight under the constant threat of death. In the film the teenaged Johnny Mad Dog serves as one of the higher-ups in the rebel brigade, commanding a group that consists primarily of preadolescents. Under his direction, the band moves towards Monrovia and commits a whirlwind of violence against all they face. Their campaign brings the child soldiers into contact with civilian kids whose world is suddenly shattered when faced with the realities of war.

So often, such films depict child soldiers as merely brainwashed monsters. Johnny Mad Dog boldly goes beyond this characterization by lingering upon moments where the fighter's juvenile mindset suddenly flares up amongst the carnage. Although the leader's right-hand man, No Good Advice, typically executes all demands without question, his compliant demeanor suddenly changes when he steals a pig from an old man. With each order to slaughter the animal, No Good Advice grows ever more adamant in his resistance. It becomes clear that the often ruthless child desperately clings to the animal as though it were a precious toy. Johnny Mad Dog exposes his own naïveté during a tense and brutal interrogation of a bourgeois couple. To challenge the intellectuals, Johnny Mad Dog coldly asks questions about the area of a triangle and powers of 10. His basic inquiries indicate that the young soldiers see the world through a limited vision, even as they gain the power to commit widespread atrocities.

These moments, perversely connecting the actions of the combatants with a relative innocence, heightens the force of their deep indoctrination to a system centered around attaining power through violence. The adult generals create a sense of eerily empowering hysteria by firing blanks at their bare-chested underlings to lead them to believe that they are bullet proof. The motto of the group "Don't want to die? Don't be born!" reveals how the older commanders make death a mundane facet of life, infusing the children's existence with its constant presence. The world of the child soldier is thus transformed into one built upon the dichotomy between absolute strength and total weakness.

The fierce lead Christopher Minie

All the actors are adept at handling the tension that derives from this uncanny marriage of extremes. As the titular character, Christopher Minie exudes a vicious, overpowering charisma giving Mad Dog the seemingly unshakable strength of the eternal soldier. With his fierce presence, the actor crafts a character that subconsciously clings to his position so that he can attain a modicum of control within a life of enslavement. Walking away from his band in a derelict building, Mad Dog comes upon the civilian youths Laokole and her toddler brother. The actor's usually contorted, angered expression briefly softens as he looks at the two with a quiet interest of the child - a poignant glimmer of Mad Dog's long forgotten past as a normal boy.

Daisy Victoria Vandy plays Johnny Mad Dog's antithesis, the pure Laokole, with similar nuance thereby challenging the possibility of innocence during times of violent strife. Whereas Vandy first depicts Laokole as a quiet entity determined to protect her family, increasing loss darkens the color of the actress' performance. Vandy's initial warmth slowly disappears as Laokole becomes infected by anger and brought to the point where hatred may not only be accepted but embraced. These rich performances from characters on opposite ends of the conflict embody a young ensemble that performs without a hint of theatricality and with all the complexity of the most frightening documentary.

Further accentuating such fearless and raw acting is the film’s electric editing and direction. The editing style remains loose and rapid, thus allowing the production to capture a war-torn existence that lies in a muddle of fear and adrenaline. For all its fast cuts, the film always remains intensely legible even during the height of battle. As the band rushes through the city streets with guns blazing, the film creates a sense of controlled frenzy which reinforces the brutality’s violent purpose. This measured presentation shows that these kids exist, at some level, on the same plane as the typical adult soldier. When the rate of the montage momentarily slows down, the film takes an opportunity to meditate on the troubling societal implications stemming from warfare where the child becomes fodder for enemy guns. Trudging through the capital, the gang walks through a graveyard while listening to a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. about the disenfranchisement of the black man. The scene's languid rhythm, coupled with the unusual juxtaposition of the youths against the tombstones, reflects how Liberia has utterly failed its young and created a generation that seems to have sprung out of bloodshed. The impeccable editing never lets the visceral quality of the film subsume its always thought-provoking political stakes.

Filmmaker Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire has an eye for the surreal, using the imagery of the strange to identify the very real devastation’s nightmarish qualities. Sauvaire's affinity for the bizarre becomes apparent during the picture's opening. As chaos occurs outside, a lone soldier finds a wedding dress in an empty home. With almost ritualistic care, he puts on the garb from the long gloves to the dress itself. The camera focuses on each white article shining brightly on the teenager's black skin, before pulling back to reveal the violent aggressor reconfigured as an innocent bride. The extreme instance of gender inversion, which goes un-remarked by his comrades, frames the realm of the child soldier as one of no taboos and no boundaries - simply pure pandemonium.

After the film screened, some in attendance made comparisons to the acclaimed City of God. This connection to the recent modern masterpiece is no hyperbolic exaggeration as Johnny Mad Dog has the same confidence in its searing depiction of youth gone awry. Through its presentation of an unflinching and complex look at an often ignored contemporary horror, the film powerfully testifies to the boldness of Giffoni's selection and the festival's respect for the intelligence of its young audience. This tour de force continually challenges the apathy of the western viewer with unrestrained intensity. In its finale, a girl points a gun directly to the camera. Fearlessly breaking the 4th wall, the last image speaks directly to the distant spectator. Her aggressive though ultimately harmless affront against the viewer encapsulates a film aware of the cinematic medium's power to provoke while acknowledging its fundamental impotence at effecting real change. This direct confrontation stands as a devastating and intelligent finale to what is an uncompromising and wholly unforgettable film.

The final verdict on Karlovy Vary and Giffoni

A group of jurors ready for their close-up

Now that I have delved into the best Giffoni had to offer, I will now widen my gaze to deliver a final verdict on two very different July film festivals. With over 60 films viewed, 22 days of festivals attended, and 2 countries visited, what was the essence of the Karlovy Vary and Giffoni experiences? Stay tuned for the next festival blog post for the answer!