Director Cary Fukunaga talks Beasts of No Nation

Children are impacted by war in a number of ways. Some lose parents who are sent off to battle. Others are caught in the crossfire, and still others in the Middle East, Southeast Asia and Africa are forced into conflict, themselves to kill or be killed. Sin Nombre and Jane Eyre director Cary Joji Fukunaga has been obsessed with this issue for years and so was excited to draw attention to the plight of child soldiers in West Africa in Beasts of No Nation, based on the novel by Uzodinma Iweala and co-starring Idris Elba and newcomer Abraham Attah. The film opens at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinemas on Oct. 16 and is also currently available on Netflix. SF Weekly spoke to Oakland-born Cary Fukunaga about how growing up in the multicultural Bay informed his interest in international storytelling, the making of the movie and what it means to be nationless.

How did growing up in Oakland inform the filmmaker that you would become?

I don't know. I know that I loved growing up in the Bay Area and loved all my explorations of the Bay. We always have nostalgia for our youth, but it's clearly a multicultural place to grow up. It's open-minded, everyone's included and it definitely had its radar out to the rest of the world and was pretty advanced in terms of its consciousness level.

As much I loved growing up here, though, I have been in New York now for 14 years, and I don't really have a desire to move back. So there's that. And maybe it's partly that growing up around the Bay is a good launching pad to grow up and see the world. Spread your wings and see what's out there. I can't tell you the amount of people I’ve met from the Bay Area around the world, even in the jungles of Cambodia.  It happens everywhere.

Do you appreciate what the Bay Area has become?

The tech capital? I think financially, of course, it's really benefited the Bay Area, but there's a question now about the equality of the Bay Area in terms of the disparity of wealth that exists here now that I think is hypocritical or antithetical to the whole sort of hippie vibe that existed here before then. 

Is it possible to succeed as a filmmaker outside of Hollywood or New York? Say, in San Francisco, for example?

The great thing today about technology and the way people make movies is that you don't have to be in Los Angeles, for example. I’ve never had to live in Los Angeles to have a career. And it's kind of inspired me to move to more rural places like some country spread in Wyoming or Tennessee, because I hunger for that air and space. I think you could definitely be in the Bay and make movies that could go worldwide.

Between your biological parents and your stepparents, you've been exposed to Japanese, Swedish, Argentinian and Mexican culture. Does that play into your interest in international filmmaking?

I think it definitely helped. But even before the multicultural remarriages, like when I was a kid, I loved maps and countries in the world and knowing where we existed. Also, being aware of the United States being in the middle of the world map, and it seemed weird that Eurasia was cut in half and just kind of starting to be a little more conscious of those things. In my adolescence, as more cultures were introduced in my life, it definitely fed into that hunger to go out into the world. As a matter of fact, when I was 17, I didn't want to go to college or university. I almost barely applied, because I wanted to travel. But my parents made me apply. So I begrudgingly went to college, but I would have much rather traveled around the world.

Do you feel rooted in any one country, or do you feel like a citizen of the world?

I lived in Japan after I was done with college and I felt pretty American living there, despite having Japanese heritage. So as much as I’m interested in living other places in the world, I don't want to lose touch with the culture that raised me. The reason for that is it's dangerous to separate yourself from society, especially your own society too much, because it could lead to bad behavior [laughs].

Yeah, the expats I’ve met in some of the third-world countries that I’ve traveled to have gotten a little too used to being outside of their own culture. And it made them act odd. I mean vices, moral and substance wise. So it's important to have the judgment of others to keep you in check.

Beasts of No Nation was shot in Ghana. How did you find working there?

It wasn't my first time in West Africa. I had spent time in Guinea and Sierra Leone and Liberia. Ghana, I had heard a lot about from my friends who had done Peace Corps on the Ivory Coast, and they had always described it as being a very controlled state. And I was very curious what that meant when I went there. And it's kind of a success story in terms of postcolonial stability, but it's also heavily corrupt and it's very hard to get things done there. And shooting there had a lot of challenges, but that's not saying that the cultures we encountered weren't brilliant and amazing and welcoming and warm. It just meant getting things done was very difficult and getting things done in a period of time that made the production feasible was a nearly impossible task. 

Why is the topic of child soldiers so intriguing to you?

I don't know. It’s just one of those things, where once I started doing the research and going down the path to writing stories and making it real. It became a responsibility, I suppose. The same thing happened on Sin Nombre. You're sitting there traveling with immigrants and sharing their experience and they're sharing their life stories with you, and that generosity of sharing their personal life experience puts that responsibility on you to use it responsibly and to give a voice to it. So I feel like Sin Nombre does well in honoring the experience of Central American immigrants and likewise this story hopefully takes a lot from the experience of the combatants and especially the child soldiers that I spoke to and feels real enough that it feels like it's been represented. Representation is a big thing. A lot of people don't feel it. A lot of conflicts come out of feeling disenfranchised, so to have some version of their story made this way, I guess validates that research. So a lot of it, sticking with it and being committed to it for so long, goes to that feeling of if I didn't do the story, then I’ve failed the people who gave their time to me.

How is it different telling the story of a war through a child like Agu's eyes than an adult's? Is it just that it's more horrifying because it's impacting a child?

War is bad, in general. Whether it's adults fighting and killing each other, there are still going to be kids either hurt in the crossfire or hurt at home due to dead loved ones. But the use of child soldiers — it goes to an instinctual place inside of ourselves, that I think people who aren't sociopaths feel that there is something fundamentally wrong with a child placed anywhere near warfare or especially forced to kill and that natural instinct to protect is fired up when we see this, which is part of the reason that this is such an emotionally affecting issue. It's real. It's happening in the world. It's a fact that wasn't celebrated. but now in this war in Syria, you see ISIS making propaganda videos about their child soldiers.

The movie is called Beasts of No Nation. What does it mean to you to be nationless?

It's tough, because nations can be broken apart at any time and anyone can find ways, often via race, to find even smaller ways to divide ourselves. So being of no nation just means being of no political state, and that has nothing to do with identity in my mind. National identity is very tenuous.

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