Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s extraordinarily powerful Johnny Mad Dog finally gets a long-awaited UK theatrical release. Set in an unnamed African country, it opens with a shockingly brutal, surreally violent scene in which a pack of frenzied, coked up, brainwashed children attack villagers before walking away dressed in stolen rags, bizarre headgear and a wedding dress, brandishing guns and rifles. By adopting the point of view of the child soldiers, Sauvaire makes us experience the war through their eyes, plunging us into their perception of the senseless chaos and madness of war, avoiding any simplifying, worthy platitudes about the situation. They are both terrible victims of the war and terrifying murderers, childish and vulnerable on the one hand and capable of the most chilling acts of violence on the other. Virginie Sélavy talked to Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire about why he chose to film in Liberia, how he worked with former child soldiers and what sort of war film he wanted to make.
Virginie Sélavy: The film was adapted from the novel by Emmanuel Dongala, which is about the civil war in Congo. What made you want to turn it into a film?
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire: The book is not really about Congo. Dongala is from Brazzaville and he used his experience in Congo, but he mixed it up with other things to create a fictional story. It is about the fight between the Dogomani and the Manidogo, he’s set the book in a generic Africa. I wanted to do something on child soldiers because I made a documentary in Colombia [in 2004] that I couldn’t complete the way I wanted. It was meant to be fiction but I turned it into a documentary called Carlitos Medellin, about the kids hired by Pablo Escobar to kill policemen and politicians because they’re minors. We received threats and I realised that we couldn’t make a documentary during the civil war in Colombia. I came across Dongala’s book and I found the story really interesting. I liked the journey of the two teenagers – in the book there’s a chapter on Johnny and one on Laokole [a young girl with a parallel experience to Johnny’s], so you follow the boy and the girl, which provides two different points of view. I found the situations described in the book very convincing, realistic and interesting.
VS: Why did you decide to film in Liberia?
JSS: At first, I thought I’d make the film in Kinshasa because I know the place better, but it’s a big city and it’s a complicated country politically. Also, the problem of the child soldiers has affected West Africa, in particular Liberia and Sierra Leone. It was important for me to film with former child soldiers and when I met them, they said not to make the film in South Africa or Senegal, which was what the producers wanted initially because Liberia had just come out of war and they didn’t think we would get insurance to film there. It was a difficult project to set up, so by the time we arrived in Liberia, it was exactly the right moment, in 2006, just after the elections. The government supported the project because internationally it showed that the country was peaceful and that you could make a film there. At the same time, they’d just come out of 14 years of war and they wanted to talk about it because it was a way of exorcising the past and avoiding doing the same thing again.
VS: How did the filming go with the children? Was it traumatic for them to relive those events or was it cathartic?
JSS: It was therapy. I spent a year doing the casting, looking for the 15 kids who were right for the film. I lived in a house with them and we started working on the film, talking and improvising. I explained cinema to them, showed them films, and they told me what happened during the war. It was always playful. They found stability there because most of them were street children who had no family left and had never been to school. With us, they had a place to sleep, and food every day. When they didn’t feel good, they would talk about what they had experienced. After that, they really started working as actors with a coach, but it was still always through games. I was worried some of the games were too simple but they loved it, they were like two-year-old kids! That was the amazing thing with them: they had the maturity of adults because they experienced things that they shouldn’t have, and at the same time they were like little kids in need of attention. As it lasted a whole year, by the end of it, they’d become actors. I made a documentary about them where you can see their evolution. It starts with the casting where the kids talk about horrifying things, which they never enacted in the film, not even in the improvisations – they never recreated the most violent things they went through.
VS: There is a documentary aspect to the film – it ends with images of real child soldiers taken during the war in Liberia between 1990 and 2003. But at the same time, you don’t set the story in a specific country and you don’t give any information about the political situation. Why did you choose to make a sort of universal fable rather than analyse the problem of child soldiers in political and social terms?
JSS: The book was already like that, it was situated somewhere in Africa and I liked that universality, to not anchor the story in a historic reality, in a war that is over and that no one cares about anymore. I remember feeling this way when I saw Hotel Rwanda: on the one hand, it’s important to show what happened, on the other hand, it happened 10 years ago and it no longer affects us. So I didn’t want to anchor the story in Liberia in 2003, with Charles Taylor – although I hesitated for a while. But ultimately, child soldiers are a universal and international issue. For me, it was about saying it happened, but also that this is still happening. It was more about what it’s like to be a child soldier than about offering a historical narrative – it was also about provoking the audience. I wanted to keep the documentary aspect but also make a fiction film to keep the emotions of the kids, and the chaos and intensity that they must have experienced.
VS: Did you think about making a documentary instead of a fiction film at any point?
JSS: Not really. It would have meant interviewing the kids after the war, so their stories would have all been similar, and it doesn’t affect you in the same way. The other alternative would have been filming kids in the middle of the war, and that would have been complicated. So it had to be realistic fiction. A war film has to be violent otherwise it is not doing what it should be doing. If you want to denounce war and the violence of war, your film has to have a minimum of violence, without descending into butchery. In Johnny Mad Dog, there is no blood. The violence is more psychological and is connected to the children, because a child with a gun, that’s already violent. The kids had a certain approach to things, a sort of energy that was quite violent.
VS: The film reminded me of Lord of the Flies, especially the scene with the head of a pig on a spike. Was it an influence on Johnny Mad Dog?
JSS: I like both the novel and the film very much and I re-read the book because there is something similar in the way the kids recreate society. But I don’t remember the scene with the pig. In the film, the kid just started kissing the pig’s head of his own accord, it wasn’t planned.
VS: I also thought of Apocalypse Now because it goes beyond other war films and really conveys the madness of war and the descent into hell it represents.
JSS: That’s one of the war films I like best, I find it more realistic than others even though it operates on a more oneiric level. I often used it as an example when people were saying to me, ‘you’re going to make a war film in Scope with beautiful images, you’re going to glorify war’. I don’t want to glorify war, but I also want to make a beautiful film. Just because you make a film about war doesn’t mean that you have to use shot-on-the-spot video images. I’m not comparing Johnny Mad Dog to Apocalypse Now because Apocalypse Now is a great film, but I never found it shocking that it was beautiful, and so I decided to use a more dream-like approach to tell the story, rather than a completely realistic one.
VS: You seem clearly more interested in the way the children perceive the events than in a straightforward chronicle of the events themselves.
JSS: Absolutely. It is about how they feel, what they have been through and how to experience it through them in a manner that is much more visceral than narrative. There are three war films that have influenced me a lot – Apocalypse Now, but also Full Metal Jacket for its realism and Come and See, a very beautiful Russian film from 1985 that inspired Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. In each case, we’re very close to the characters, we’re inside their heads, and I’m more interested in human films about war and people lost in the chaos than in seeing war from outside as a series of action scenes.
VS: The ending seems to suggest some hope, but it is destroyed in the very last scene, as if it was impossible to escape from the tornado of violence that has been unleashed on the country. I thought it was a very appropriate ending. Why did you choose to end the film in this way and did you think of any other possible endings?
JSS: The ending was complicated. In the book, the ending is similar but there is more hope. I didn’t like it, symbolically all the child soldiers were killed and Africa was rebuilt with the ones who’d been to school. The child soldiers are victims as much as anyone else, so I didn’t want to end it in that way. I’d written a happier end where the children all go to school, but I found it hard to film. It didn’t fit. These kids are now on the street, so I didn’t see why we’d shoot an ending where they go to school and everything ends well, because that’s not the reality. What interested me was the violence that comes out in the other main character at the end, as a result of everything that’s happened.
VS: How was it, filming in Africa as a European?
JSS: I think the story is universal and I never saw this as a problem and never encountered any. Liberia is a very peculiar country because it was created by the Americans to return black slaves so it’s the only African country that wasn’t colonised by the whites. So there’s never been this colonial relationship and there isn’t the tension you can feel in other countries.
VS: Were you accepted from the start?
JSS: Yes. Matthieu Kassovitz [who produced the film] said, ‘be careful, when I made La Haine on the estates, people were asking what I was doing there’, but I never felt that. I made the film with the people from the country, I didn’t bring a script and tell them to learn their roles, it’s a film we made together. They brought their experience of the war and I brought my experience of filmmaking. I spent two years in Liberia to really immerse myself in the country. Everybody got deeply involved, even the extras. I’m still in touch with the children because we established the Johnny Mad Dog Foundation for them. It was a beautiful adventure.
Interview by Virginie Sélavy