"Ezra": Childhoods End By Raghavendra Mirle

in 11st Zanzibar International Film Festival

by Raghavendra Mirle

The issue of child soldiers is perhaps the one about Africa that most engages cinema today. If Edward Zwick’s (somewhat Eurocentric) Blood Diamond (2006) is credited with having brought it forcefully into cinema, Newton I. Aduaka’s Ezra (2007) is a more authentic African look at the same issue. Ezra was screened at the Zanzibar International Film Festival 2008, where it received The International Critics Prize (FIPRESCI Prize), but what was perhaps also interesting was that there were two other films referring to child soldiers that were screened alongside at ZIFF 2008 — Joseph Muganga’s The Kadogo Brothers (Les Frères Kadogo) from Ivory Coast and Teresa Prata’s Sleepwalking Land, a Mozambique/Portugal co-production. The African continent has apparently embraced the issue as distinctly its own and this is significant.

Ezra begins with a prologue in which a band of armed men raid a rural schoolhouse, round up a bunch of children and kidnap them. The location (which is perhaps Sierra Leone) is not mentioned but the teacher has just written a date in 1992 on the blackboard and set the children an assignment — an essay on why each of them loves his or her country. The child Ezra is among those kidnapped and the rest of the prologue has to do with the initiation of the eight-year-old child into the ways of ruthless armed combat. Here, again, the commander of the rebel company invokes ‘love for the country’ and notions such as ‘justice’ and ‘revolution’ to persuade his all-too-persuadable wards, and it is evident that what are being groomed are a bunch of precocious killers with just the right sentiments.

The film then moves to a hearing of a Committee for National Reconciliation about eight years later. Ezra (Mamoudu Turay Kamara) is now about 16 years old and trying to acquire the skills of a carpenter. Ezra is not on trial in the hearings but his background is being investigated to understand what child soldiers generally lived through in the past eight to ten years. Especially important in Ezra’s case are the occurrences on a certain day in January 2009 and the significance of the day gradually become clearer. Ezra’s parents are dead but his sister Onitcha (Mariame N’Diaye) still lives (although rendered speechless) and her assistance — along with that of some sympathetic others — is sought by the ‘court’ to proceed with the investigation. It is evident that the adolescent Ezra has not been overcome by remorse at what he has done. He does not, in fact, even recollect his actions on that fateful day. All he recollects is that it was the day on which he met ‘Black Diamond’ (Mamusu Kallon), his now dead girlfriend and former comrade-in-arms.

Ezra’s life after his kidnapping — and up to the time of his capture by loyalist forces — is then presented to us in a series of fragmented flashbacks. What happened on the fateful day was that Ezra and his comrades were pumped full of excitement-inducing amphetamines and sent on a search-and-destroy mission to his own village because its inhabitants were suspected to be sympathetic to the government forces. In the process, Ezra had turned a flame-thrower on his own family home and reduced everyone inside to cinders. His sister Onitcha, who escaped the carnage, had her tongue cut out so she could not speak thereafter. The conflict between the rebels (‘the Bloodbrothers’) and the government revolves around the elections and the rebels are also cutting off hands because ‘no hand means no vote’. And the stakes are apparently large because ‘diamonds’ are mentioned and white foreigners are seen at strategic moments. In fact Ezra even asks the enquiry commission if any African has ever seen a diamond.

It is to Ezra’s credit that it offers no ready solutions and its protagonist is virtually implacable to the very end. The film does not show the government forces as morally superior to the rebels, although they recruit no child soldiers. Ezra has been the victim of a kidnapping but his girlfriend Black Diamond is the daughter of a radical journalist and she has apparently arrived there because of her convictions. The enquiry commission is chaired by a deeply sympathetic American former general Mac Mondale (Richard Gant) and he winces when Ezra lashes out at him in court.

Unlike Blood Diamond, Ezra raises several questions that do not stop with the humanitarian side. One of cinema’s recurring conventions is that children are naturally innocent and ‘lost innocence’ is a favorite theme of cinema. Many of cinema’s greatest works — from De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1948) to Ray’s Pather Panchali (1954) have benefited through the use of this convention and only films like Bunuel’s Los Olividados (1950) and Fernando Meirelles and Katia Lund’s City of God (Cidade de Deus, 2002) have questioned its basis. These films — as Ezra also does suggest that ethical qualities are not ‘lost’ as a child grows up but that they may be actually acquired through education. Children, because they have not been imprinted upon by social convention, are perhaps much more easily indoctrinated by mindless polemic and turned into ‘killing machines’ than adults are. The rebels in Ezra apparently understand this very well because children are in great demand as new recruits.

Ezra is extremely well acted and particularly striking are the sequences dealing with the hearings of the enquiry commission. Ezra is in a frame of mind impossible to understand and, for all his youthfulness, his responses to the questions put to him are almost chilling. The child went through so much — and was made to go so far in his conduct — that when he becomes an adolescent he is remote and inaccessible.

Marking out Ezra among a host of other films dealing with violence and moral choice is its clear-eyed look at the issue. Moral choices are not as easily exercised as it may seem, the film suggests. If we have become moral beings, it is through a process of education that only the privileged may be fortunate enough to receive — and there is a metaphor in this. If it is argued that African countries are the ‘children’ among the world’s nation states, could not the histories of many of these nations be akin to the lives of child soldiers? It is perhaps the responsibility of the ‘adult’ nation states to attend to the correct development of these infant nations instead of seeing in them only the expendable custodians of scarce resources. If this argument is conceded it can be asserted that the ‘adults’ will need to be become truly moral beings before they dictate to the ‘children’ or intervene/mediate in their development.