The powerful film drama Johnny Mad Dog tells the story of a band of child soldiers who fight in an African civil war. “This may be one of the most disturbing films you’ll ever see,” writes Linda Ruth Williams in the British film magazine Sight & Sound, “but it tackles its grim subject matter with such innovation and exhilaration that glimpses of beauty shine through the mask of terror.” The film owes its unsettling realism in part to its cast: Liberian children who have actually been soldiers. Sight & Sound’s Jonathan Romney spoke with director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire about the film and the ethical paradoxes of his casting methods.
You shot in Liberia, but the film never specifies a particular setting.
It could just as well be set in Sierra Leone or Uganda, anywhere that children were used in conflict. I didn’t want to make a historical film. I wanted it to be about child soldiers—the same things are still happening in Colombia, in the Middle East.
How many of your young actors had actually been child soldiers in the war?
All the young people in the film have only known war. The boy who plays No Good Advice, the youngest (Dagbeh Tweh), I found him in photos from 2003, among the combatants on the bridge at Monrovia, there in the middle of the shooting and the dead. The oldest ones fought, like Christophe Minie, who plays Johnny.
How did you find your cast?
There are certain districts, the ghetto really, where the military was easily able to recruit soldiers. I did casting sessions asking them to tell me whatever they wanted, in front of the camera—not necessarily war stories, but they’d inevitably talk about war. It was fascinating: Some were obviously lying, telling stories they’d heard, others were clearly telling me things they needed to tell. You sense the trauma when they tell you these things—they’ve persuaded themselves that it’s just what happens in war. As far as they’re concerned, they were fighting as soldiers, not just killing gratuitously. That’s why they recruit children to fight, because they get caught up in a sort of madness, without being aware that they’re killing.
Did you feel there were any ethical problems in asking them to reenact their experiences?
Put it another way: Can you tell a story about child soldiers using children who haven’t experienced war? Psychologists advised me that it’s more dangerous to have children act out war if they haven’t lived through it. I spent a year with those children: We talked a lot, they had acting exercises every morning, and they were able to make a distinction between what they’d experienced and the work they were doing as actors. They didn’t just improvise—it was choreographed, directed, they learned their lines. I think it was really therapeutic for them.
Excerpted from Sight & Sound (Nov. 2009), the magazine of the British Film Institute, which covers everything from Hollywood to Bollywood to the indie film circuit.