Cary Fukunaga On Beasts of No Nation's Stark Portrait of Africa

"I think most Americans think Africa is one country"

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Some people love to flaunt their intellect. Some conceal it. Others brush off its existence. Cary Joji Fukunaga, the director of Sin Nombre, Jane Eyre, and the first season of True Detective, tries all three: modesty ensnared in awareness of his own ambition.

When we spoke on the phone—"at the tail-end of a long day," he mentioned—Fukunaga was astute, forthright, and a little combative.​ Given the sensitivity of the material depicted in his latest film, Beasts of No Nation, his defensiveness was understandable. Adapted from Uzodinma Iweala's novel of the same name, the film is a politically charged drama about a child who finds himself unwittingly ensnared in an African civil war. Through the eyes of Agu (played powerfully by first-time actor Abraham Attah) we're given a window into a dilapidated society where murders, bombings, and beheadings have become commonplace. Most tragic, however, is the gradual erosion of innocence. Agu entered the battle a boy, and left a man. It's an experience Fukunaga knew little about—and that was the point.

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Americanah author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk discussing the risks of hearing a single story from "another person or country," and the misunderstanding that often springs from hearing that one perspective on a place or people. Did you fear that you were making a version of that single story?
I want to have the person who organised my schedule with you to send you a conversation I had with my friend, K'naan Warsame, which is a four page conversation exactly about this, the burden of being a storyteller. From K'naan's perspective, he talks about the trouble, as a Somalian, of writing stories outside of that. And for me, telling stories in Central America, the UK, and West Africa, outside of my culture, and then questioning the legitimacy of me telling those stories. [Fukunaga passed his conversation to Warsame to Esquire, where he tells him, "I've avoided telling Asian-American stories, as that is my background, the time just hasn't come for me to tell that narrative, but I know from the Asian-American community in film, we are woefully underrepresented and part of me feels a burden to tell a story from that world even if it's not my most burning passion."—Editor]

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Do you think your film perpetuates an image of Africa that Americans already have in their head?
I think it's a leading question if you say perpetuates, because it means you're saying there's already an image of what Americans think Africa is.

You don't think there's a preconceived image?
I actually think most Americans think Africa is one country.

What does that say about us?
I would really challenge most Americans to even point out where West Africa was on a map. Geography and history are not strengths of our public school system. I think this movie, more than anything, regardless of the potential critique that it perpetuates Africa in disarray, it does emotionally connect an audience with a child that would otherwise just be a news headline to them. And also, I think the film closes the gap of exoticism that might exist in terms of what a family might be like in Africa versus a family in the US. The dinner conversations, the mischief, the relationships between mothers and sons, it's all very similar to what we have. I also have the legitimacy of telling this story because it was written by a Nigerian author [Uzodinma Iweala] himself.

As someone who grew up in the Bay Area, was there a learning curve in understanding this material?
I don't come from the culture Uzo came from. I didn't come from the culture even the central immigrants I depicted in Sin Nombre came from. A pretty extensive amount of research goes into this. Understanding the history and political conflicts, the various factions, where they came from. I went down there in 2003, before even reading the work, to do research. A lot of observation, personal testimony, and scouting, if you will, went into this to start putting together a picture that felt authentic. What really affected me about Uzo's novel is that is stripped away all context, and really focused on this kid's voice. And it's a voice that's so rarely heard.

Is authenticity the primary goal in your films?
Starting from facts is one of the most important things. Just because you can build off that so much easier. I actually think it's easier to aim for authenticity than to make it up, because you can do the research and you can find the information. It's easier to recreate.

At the Tribeca Film Festival you said, "You have a family with basically no white people. The movie is a difficult subject. It could easily become one of those films no one watches because it is so serious." Do you believe that's a legitimate possibility with today's movie-goers?
Uh, 100 percent. Still valid.

And why do you think that is?
I think this movie is a really hard film to sell to people to watch. And the more people who talk about the film as a brutal experience, the less people are interested in being brutalised watching it. People like to see their stars, and the people they like in movies. It's just tough to convince people to check other movies out.

You've made films with and without stars, though.
It's not all about the stars, it just makes it easier for people to show up.

Did you contemplate casting a star in this movie just for the sake of getting a bigger draw?
No, not necessarily. I did contemplate casting someone based on their skill. The role Idris played, I think, requires a nimble actor in terms of walking the line between being an apprehendable villain and somehow a sympathetic human being. Most actors would struggle to do that—even amongst the best actors working.

You were the DP, director, screenwriter, and producer on this. Most people have trouble getting out of bed before 8 AM. How did you manage all that?
I didn't really sleep much. For many months. No lie. I lost 20 pounds doing it. It was a pretty full-on working experience. It was very stressful. I don't know why I did it.

Could you not trust anyone else to do the work?
It wasn't a question of not trusting someone else with the material, it was a challenge for myself. Looking at directors I admire like [Steven] Soderbergh, who does it himself as well. I come from a cinematography background.

You talk about experimentation, this Netflix release of your movie is a new creation. Did you find the process any less legitimate than working with a studio?
Some of the first parts of the negotiation was guaranteeing the theatrical component to the film. Once that was established it didn't matter to me that we were also going to be premiering, simultaneously, with Netflix. I saw it more as an opportunity. If this film performs at the box office, and if the journalist and publicity of the film gets people to show up and watch this film in the audience, instead staying at home in watching, it just demonstrates that people still want to see films in the cinema. And it may even convince Netflix, I'm hoping, to start making that a real option for its consumers to watch their films and television shows in the theatrical space.

For years, everyone lamented theater attendance, citing that people would rather sit at home and watch Netflix. And now it seems Netflix is part of this.
They're going to try to serve what there's demand for. I would really love it for Netflix to open up unlimited amount of theater chains and put their content on a big screen for the collective audience that's going to watch it.

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