Tonight I watched Netflix’s debut feature-length, Beasts of No Nation. It’s a beautiful movie, and horrific to watch. There is little to spoil that isn’t made apparent in the film’s trailer, so I can state the obvious and say that any film about children robbed of their youth and forced to join a rebel militia is going to be indeed horrific.
I watched the film with several friends and we discussed one of the notable aspects afterwards: the film suggests no time period, no specific conflicts or wars, and no country as a setting. Uzodinma Iweala, the author of the book on which the film is based, confirmed this, stating “It’s an unnamed country. […] what I was trying to write about was something that perhaps was a little bit abstracted from the specifics of any particular country’s politics.*” *Though the story ultimately told by Iweala—one of Agu, a boy forced into a harrowing existence as a child soldier—is fiction, it is heavily based on historical accounts of the Nigerian civil war.
Afterwards, cleaning up dishes in the kitchen, I was thinking of the incredible gift of humans to extrapolate reality and from it construct elaborate fictional worlds. For Uzondinma Iweala to listen to the stories of his Nigerian relatives, to read histories of brutal conflicts, to meet with former child soldiers, and to then create a fictional equivalent in graphic detail, evoking in readers a revulsion to the ferocity of war and a deep tenderness for a forsaken boy… it is a testament to the power of the human mind.
For not only can we dream in jumbled pictures; not only can we imagine an alternative, fantastical world; we can imagine entirely separate realities for ourselves. This is, essentially, what every author of fictional tales does: they fabricate the existence of people entirely drawn into life by inspiration. They, in essence, place themselves into the very skin of a different human being. They can envision a reality in which they are this different person. And though not necessarily in writing, this is what we all do.
What makes this human ability all the more powerful, I think, is that not only can we imagine alternative realities, but better alternative realities. We can look into the future and see ways to improve ourselves and the world. And we use our ability to devise these fictional worlds to generate a very powerful thing: hope. Hope, in turn, inspires action, often leading to the change we seek.
There are many things to marvel at in our human bodies. Functions of our organs that keep us alive without the requirement of our understanding how they do it. The ability to learn and use speech. The mere conception of using our extremities to write symbols and thereby communicate with others. But with those basic things taken as a given, it is spectacular that our ability to spin fiction from reality, even just in our heads, is truly what propels us through life. Always progressing, straddling the divide between our ever-present truth and our immeasurable, utopian future.