Some films grab you by the throat and don’t let go…films that cross the boundaries of fiction and shatter your cosy world. “Johnny Mad Dog” is one of those films. Released in 2008 and directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, it is based on the novel “Johnny Chien Méchant” (2002) by Emmanuel Dongala.
It follows a group of child soldiers fighting during the Second Liberian Civil War in 2003. In their march towards the capital Monrovia, they travel through towns and small villages, where they terrify, rape and kill civilians on a rampage fuelled by drugs and fanatical brainwash.
The main character is Johnny “Mad Dog” who leads a ferocious pack of child soldiers. Broken souls no older than fourteen and clad in a surrealist mix of military fatigues, sport clothes, wedding dresses and butterfly wings. Under the orders of ruthless “General Never Die”, who feeds them cocaine and gives them a motto to live by: “You don’t wanna die, don’t be born”, Johnny commits dreadful crimes while fighting to remain alive.
The film depicts the true heart of darkness, where yesterday most innocent victims become today most barbaric murderers. A postmodern nightmare of violence where old songs are movingly evoked to bid farewell to the brother killed in combat while the basic foundations of civilization are utterly demolished by destruction on behalf of the twisted ghosts of freedom and justice.
In the midst of this civil Armageddon, the faintest glimpse of human hope is embodied by a young girl desperate to protect her disabled father and younger brother. A wingless angel facing a tidal wave of horror, bravely confronting Johnny and reminding us that there is always a choice…
Great works of art can shake us to the core but when they also reflect crude human reality, their impact cannot be deeper. I guess this is a film where the audience cannot claim innocence and in an era of stultifying mass productions, this is not only a great film but also a sharp reminder of where humanity really is at the beginning of the twentieth first century.