The 40th anniversary of the Toronto International Film Festival ushered in a few unique changes to the longstanding event’s format. For the first time, a new category — the Primetime Program — augmented an already world-renowned international film slate. The category broke through with a narrative mix that would introduce new serials like Heroes Reborn, a continuation of the NBC original series Heroes, as well as a noirish thriller from Iceland — Trapped — from feature director Baltasar Kormákur (Everest), while also spotlighting special presentations such as Keith Richards: Under the Influence from Academy Award-winning director Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet From Stardom).
Neville’s installment in the Primetime category offers an intriguing glimpse into the future of the mixed- and emerging-media landscape, because it is an original production from the streaming service Netflix, which used TIFF as a launch pad for its assault on distribution format boundaries. Besides the Keith Richards documentary, Netflix, with the unveiling of the new film Beasts of No Nation from director Cary Fukunaga (who also directed the first stellar season of the HBO anthology series True Detective), announced itself as a player on the feature-film stage, boldly challenging the exhibition window and the rules for Academy Award consideration.
Beasts, the story of a young boy named Agu (newcomer Abraham Attah) who is forcibly enlisted as a child warrior in the civil war of an unnamed African country under the brutal command of a fanatically charismatic figure known as the Commandant (Idris Elba), is Fukunaga’s mesmerizingly grim adaptation of Uzodinma Iweala’s novel.
The film’s raw depiction of Agu’s rapid plummet into the dark void of this civil war achieves its haunting brilliance in large part due to the care taken in the early stages of the narrative to show the loving foundation the youngster had with his family and friends. The closest recent parallel, in terms of the personal interplay, would actually be the Davis Guggenheim documentary He Named Me Malala, with its focus on Malala Yousafzai’s everyday exchanges with her family.
Of course, Beasts is fiction and Agu’s path is bleaker, more akin to the surreal downward spiral of Apocalypse Now (or Heart of Darkness, the Joseph Conrad source material for Francis Ford Coppola’s harrowing classic). Having absorbed punishing scenes of war in countless films, especially the more recent hyper-realistic and immersive frames of say, Saving Private Ryan, we know war is hell. But what Fukunaga presents is not only more relentless in its immediacy — with Agu and his fellow soldiers wielding guns and machetes with abandon — but also far more tragic, since the combatants are children, and we have no real idea who or what they are fighting for. Who is the enemy? What political and/or societal evils could ever justify drawing children into such a fray?
Beasts of No Nation marks the debut of Netflix as a feature-film producer, although it is maintaining its position as a streaming outlet by utilizing a day and date release schedule that allows audiences access via theaters (31 screens in select markets) and online simultaneously. Academy Awards guidelines stipulate that films need exclusive one-week exhibition in theaters prior to airing on television, but apparently online streaming does not conflict with the rule.
Which means that regional audiences can seek out the Academy Award-worthy work of Idris Elba (sure to be in the discussion for Best Supporting Actor) as well as that of Fukunaga, who deserves to be in contention in the Best Director category.
Based on the box office tally (Oct. 18, 2015 “Weekend Report” on moviecitynews.com), Beasts only brought in approximately $52,000 in ticket sales, and with Netflix closely guarding its streaming views data, this initial test run will likely be seen as an inconclusive experiment.
The question is whether this changes what it means when we talk about “film” and “television” as we move forward. Does our conception of narratives change depending upon how we view them? (Beasts of No Nation is now available on Netflix) — tt stern-enzi (R) Grade: A-