Johnny Mad Dog plunges right into the madness of the Liberian civil war as rebel groups storm the capital Monrovia in 2003. In the opening scene, a group of child soldiers roust a small village, making it clear there is little distinction among pillaging, any political agenda they might follow and sheer terrorism.
An adult rebel soldier controls the group of boys, almost as if he's running a cult. Recruiting is done at gunpoint and mostly as an alternative to death, but the process is actually more sadistic than that. In a fire-lit ceremony, he shoots a machine gun full of blanks at them, then says it proves they are invincible. They frequently chant mantras like "You don't want to die, don't be born," as they advance or fight. A 15-year-old nicknamed Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie) is in charge of the group, and he says he has been fighting for five years and doesn't remember his name or life before becoming a soldier.
They terrorize everyone in their path, and director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire accentuates the menace by dressing machine-gun toting teens in a little girl's butterfly wings or a wedding dress. He could not have created a bleaker moral abyss. They steal food by accusing the owners of having looted it themselves, and they justify murder by insisting individuals belong to particular tribal groups. All vulnerability or sense of inadequacy is channeled into rage and a will to humiliate and harm others.
Johnny is a leader because he is vicious but also somewhat level-headed. He crosses paths with a girl whose town and family his group has ravaged. In the chaos of the civil war, they both find themselves subject to the whims and wild indifference of others. Ultimately, there is a stark question of whether someone as steeped in violence as Johnny can renounce it, or whether someone as violated as Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) can resist it.
Sauvaire used nonactors, and the teens are excellent. It's a thrilling but violent and unsettling film. Tickets $7 general admission, $6 students/seniors, $5 Zeitgeist members. — Will Coviello
Johnny Mad Dog
7:30 p.m. Fri.; 5 p.m. Sat.; 7:30 p.m. Sun.-Thu.
Zeitgeist Multi-Disciplinary Arts Center, 1618 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd., 827-5858; www.zeitgeistinc.net