The Reeler


February 13, 2008


Child soldier story's indicting purpose gets lost in a host of muddled sensibilities

"War is a crime," says the traumatized teenage lead in Ezra, "but I did not start it." Standing before a hardened “Truth and Reconciliation Commission” in Sierra Leone to answer for crimes of brutality he committed as a soldier for an unnamed warring faction that kidnapped him as child, Ezra (played with measured intensity by Mamoudu Turay Kamara) is persistently direct. His world, however, never coalesces with such specificity. Alternating between Ezra's militant upbringing and the trial where he must confront it, the movie refuses to establish a real location or political backdrop. Although it's clearly set in South Africa, Ezra's sweeping declarations could refer to anywhere. Vaguely situated in the Twilight Zone of national unrest, the main trapping of Ezra is imprecision.

Still, Nigerian-born director Newton I. Aduaka has crafted a socially conscious fable with an alarming hook: The often overlooked problem of kidnapped children in impoverished countries and the mechanical killing machines they become. But despite its coherent purpose, Ezra quickly devolves into a murky blend of sensibilities. The talk-heavy "Truth and Reconciliation Commission" scenes aim for the trenchant investigatory nature of Bamako, while Ezra's violent experiences among the warmongering rebels lurking in the jungle suggest more of a Blood Diamond for the Nicolas Kristof readership.

That unlikely combination is also illustrative of Ezra's main problem: too much rhetoric and not enough cohesive energy for the story to come alive. It should be noted, however, that Aduaka proves to be a remarkably competent director in individual sequences. The opening is ideological dynamite: Young Ezra is one of several adolescent boys snatched out of an African village during a breathless massacre and dragged to a clandestine camp where the brainwashing process unfolds in a whirlwind of hollering mantras. But who are these ferocious rebels, and what drives their cause?

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I suppose the idea behind keeping the particulars of the events murky is to both reflect Ezra's tenuous understanding of them and allow the movie to speak to the phenomenon on a broad scale. Instead, Ezra loses focus. The plot has plenty of conflict but lacks immediacy. It frequently seems as though something dreadful is about transpire, especially in devastating flashbacks that find the unhappy protagonist bombing his parents' home and often coming close to his own demise. Then we're back at Ezra's makeshift trial, and the ambiguous setting resumes.

Ezra is exceedingly well made, even if it fails to achieve a cogent perspective. Kamara plays the tortured youth with a cold, detached delivery, which heightens the unsettling nature of his plight. There's enough evidence to suggest that Ezra takes place during the Sierra Leone civil war of the early 1990s, but Aduaka apparently has more interest in Ezra's psychological disarray than the corruption responsible for it. That's a horrifically daunting task -- how many fictionalized stories are there about the later years of Hitler youth?

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