About a month or so ago, this writer sat down to watch Beasts of No Nation, starring Idris Elba as a charismatic commandant who leads a group of child soldiers in a civil war in an unnamed African country. It’s another in a long line of Western-made films about war in foreign lands. That’s not automatically a bad thing, and Beasts is a good film (it is exquisitely crafted and brilliantly performed, and at times very evocative), but it does come with its own pitfall that the film neither transcends nor attempts to redress.
Beasts only had a very limited run in cinemas as a means of drumming up media coverage and reviews; it says something that a film with a strength such as this struggled to get cinematic distribution. Netflix bought the distribution rights and released it worldwide via its streaming services. In this regard it was a success for Netflix, being one of the first full feature films to be distributed by the streaming giant, garnering over three million US views within a few weeks of release despite a paltry $84,000 return at the box office in the US.
Those impressive streaming figures suggest that audiences today are capable of digesting difficult, harrowing material that’s a world apart from the two-dimensionality of your average blockbuster. For most of its audience, Beasts of No Nation was almost certainly the first film they saw about child soldiers. It may even have been the first film they’ve seen set entirely in Africa.
This shows that, given the chance, audiences are willing to diversify. A good film culture is a varied film culture, where audiences are equally adept at responding to difficult material as they are to simpler, more entertaining fare.
But there needs to be more. For all its strengths, Beasts ultimately still fails as a film that is specifically about child soldiers in Africa. It makes the mistake of setting its conflict in a deliberately unnamed country. By drawing away from the specific horrors of a specific conflict, it hedges its bets and finds itself unable to lock onto a specific element of the experience, degenerating into what is generally a stereotypical westernised vision of the African continent; bloody, corrupt, chaotic.
Beasts sits alongside such films as The Last King of Scotland and Hotel Rwanda: finely-crafted works by mostly Western filmmakers. However these films all ultimately struggle to move beyond the depiction of Africans (and this is a continent of over one billion people) as anything other than sufferers of great tragedies.
Contrast this with the awards and media attention these films have received alongside the attention that African films by African filmmakers have received. I am ashamed to say that I myself have seen only a handful, but even what little I have seen displays a vast breadth of style and originality. The trouble remains in tracking it down and finding it; a struggle at the best of times.
If you want to track down DVDs, many films are out of print or only available in terrible transfers. Streaming services vary in how much they can offer, with only Mubi really taking non-English language cinema seriously. If you’re naughty and using torrents, it’s still exceptionally difficult to find good-quality stuff that’s never been distributed properly.
On some level, we the audience are only ever capable of responding to the films we are able to see. If the only thing on offer in the supermarket is microwaveable junk, we’re going to eat microwaveable junk. When there's a fresh selection of fruits, vegetables, international cuisine and yummy tidbits, we discover the variety, and satisfaction, of nutrition. Whatever the selection is, to be healthy our diets need to be balanced.
Ultimately it is our individual choice whether to buy the microwaveable junk or not: we decide what is mainstream and what isn’t. Kino-Lorber created two very successful Kickstarter campaigns to bring to fruition two boxsets about the female and African-American pioneers of the early 20th Century US film industry respectively. Both boxsets unearthed and released an incredible variety of films that were previously almost entirely unavailable.
That people actively funded this project shows again, that the hunger and the audience is there, and these projects help us to gain a clearer picture of the early motion picture industry; they are helping us to rewrite history in a fairer, more truthful way by showing the stories that were previously untold.
To its credit, Netflix has even distributed some of the early African-American films on its streaming services, giving this history the potential to reach a wide audience. Of course, most people will probably skip through it and watch another C-list thriller, but the choice is there all the same. We are what we eat, and we can choose what we eat.