A glance at the vast program of the Melbourne International Film Festival is overwhelming to say the least, so the configuration of films into themes and special programs is useful for the uninformed punter. Still, a film title can only tell you so much, and Johnny Mad Dog conjures an Aussie horror adventure film.
As it turns out, nothing could be further from the truth. Johnny Mad Dog is no Mad Max – it is the war-name of a teenage boy, a child soldier, a fighter in an un-named African country ravaged by civil war. And anyone who is not uncomfortable as they watch it is not really watching, according to Director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire.
"I made this film to show war through the eyes of the children. To show how it is to have been a child soldier during a war. So it’s a more visceral movie, rather than just telling a story."
Visceral it is. Possibly one of the most distressing elements of watching the film is knowing that none of the characters are played by actors. The depiction of war is drawn directly from the life experiences of these people, and their young bodies and minds are acutely attuned to a kind of violence that few of us could imagine.
Johnny Mad Dog and his small commando of child militia (including Small Devil, No Good Advice and Quick to Kill) are armed to the hilt, and pillage and slay everything in their path while they fight to stay alive. The other central character is Laokole, a teenage girl with a devastated life, trying to flee the war-torn city with her disabled father and small brother.
For Sauvaire, working with survivors of war and former child soldiers was a fundamental aspect of the creation of the film – a process that spanned five years and involved many months living with the boys in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.
"I chose Liberia because I thought it was really important to film in a country that has experienced war, that knows war. And in Liberia it was possible to find and cast some former child soldiers, because Liberia was in war so recently. They were still young guys, 13 or 14 years old."
But the film is not about Liberia. In fact it is based on the book by Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala, who gave Sauvaire absolute permission to use the novel’s characters and narrative. With Johnny Mad Dog, Sauvaire strives to tell what he sees as a universal story about children and war, not a Congolese or Liberian story, or even an African one. "For me, it was important to keep it universal, so the audience could not say ‘Oh that happened back then, in Liberia in 2003, it’s over now’. No, it’s about their lives. Even now, we are talking here in the Hotel Sofitel in Melbourne and children are fighting in a war somewhere in the world."
This is not Sauvaire’s first effort to tackle the theme of violence in childhood. In 2003 he directed Carlitos Medellin, a documentary about child soldiers in Colombia, and his film clip for Manu Chao’s song ‘Politik Kills’ opens a window on the day-to-day reality of children in a war-ravaged ghetto somewhere in Africa. "Of course, like many people I am concerned by this – children involved in war. But I think in making a movie, you have the chance to really express something. I can express that I am really revolted by this. And if you do a movie, you need to be really invested in the subject. I am really invested in it."
I asked Sauvaire where his motivation came from – to depict such horrors; to engage so closely with a graphic brutality that would make most people avert their eyes; to make a film that has no stars and will be important rather than popular.
"I am concerned about human rights, but also I am an artist. And I spent five years making this movie, finding these boys, and then living with them for a year, and later working with them and filming them. You really have to be creatively engaged and you need to have a lot of energy to do that, so of course that comes out of my concern about their lives."
There is a sense of responsibility underpinning Sauvaire’s approach to cinema. "I think cinema offers a way to talk about some problems the world has, but in a different way to the TV news. On TV, they describe the political situation or the war and you can see bodies, blood, killing, bombs but, because people can watch it every night, eventually it is normalised. So people don’t feel involved or shocked by this. That’s quite disturbing to me."
But Sauvaire is enthusiastic when he describes his own experience over the past five years. "It was a real adventure. Every day it was a new surprise. A new challenge that we had to face." He clearly thrived on the time spent with the young men doing music and acting workshops and describes how they learnt to separate their own experience of trauma from the creative representation of it for the film. Born out of the deep bond that clearly developed between them is Sauvaire’s respect for these young former soldiers – even while he acknowledges the terrible things that they have done.
"They are violent people, aggressive. They were captured to fight in the war. They were drugged. They are good fighters because they don’t care. I wanted to show this in the film – that a child can be violent. It’s quite disturbing."
In embarking on this adventure, Sauvaire also wanted to offer something positive to their life experience. "After 15 years of life, all these boys know about is war. They were born during the war. They don’t have families, because they have been rejected – most of the time even society has rejected them. They have never been to school. There’s a generation of boys totally f*cked up by this war."
But he is also conscious about replicating the disempowering process they have endured in the war – of being dragged into the fight and dumped afterwards with nothing. Now that the film is finished, he is concerned with their reintegration, and has established a foundation to support them. There are also plans to set up a film school and continue the theatre and music workshops with other young people whose primary experience of life is violence.
"With this film, they know they have done something good in their lives. They are very involved with the movie, they say ‘our movie’ – they know that the UN in New York saw it, and so on. So I want to build on that, to assist with their integration."
Johnny Mad Dog is part of the AFRICA! AFRICA! Program of the Melbourne International Film Festival. It screens on Sunday 10 August at 3:15pm
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