Venice: 'Beasts of No Nation' Director Cary Fukunaga Talks About the Power of Movie Audiences

Beasts of No Nation Still - H 2015
Courtesy of Netflix/Venice Film Festival

Beasts of No Nation Still - H 2015

Newcomer Abraham Attah talks about how he was cast in the key role of a child soldier recruited and trained by Idris Elba's warlord.

In Cary Fukunaga’s third feature Beasts of No Nation, Idris Elba plays a warlord who recruits child soldiers in an unnamed African country. Abraham Attah plays fresh recruit, Agu, who is coerced into the killing game after his family is brutally murdered. The Hollywood Reporter called the film “grim, grueling and gripping.” And Venice artistic director Alberto Barbera previously described the film as “difficult to watch, but one that must be seen.”

The film was bought by Netflix to be their first original feature, released on Oct. 16. While major U.S. theater chains have boycotted the release for violating their traditional VOD policies, Landmark Theaters will distribute the film in 19 regions, making the movie Oscar-eligible.

Speaking at a press conference Thursday, Fukunaga admitted that the distribution model has long moved away from theater-only releases, but what has changed is how much power the audience has today. “It’s very hard to get a film exhibited these days,” he said. “It’s very hard to find space in a theater long enough for people to not only get out and see your film but to even know that your film is there in the first place. How often have you asked yourself, 'Oh, I didn’t realize that movie had already come and gone.'”

“So to get people to go to cinemas is already difficult, unless you’ve got some giant spectacle or word of mouth behind it, and I think that’s something that’s also mostly out of your control,” he continued. “But what is in your control is mainly as an audience member. And right now, I think we find ourselves, in a very interesting democratic moment of cinema attendance where by the very nature of us showing up to a screening we are telling exhibitors and distributors we care to watch these kind of films, instead of only showing up for mass or tentpole films.”

Fukunaga's remarks echo what he previously said at this year's Tribeca Film Festival, in which he talked about his hope that people would watch the movie in an engaged way as they would if they were in a theater, instead of intermittently checking their phones while watching it on Netflix on their couch.

"You have to ask the audience to be aware of the fact that they are just as responsible for the death of cinema as the people who make it," Fukunaga said at the time.

Although Elba was absent from the Venice press conference, Attah, whom critics have hailed for his role as the emotional gambit of a child soldier, was present to speak to the casting process, led by Harrison Nesbit.

“We were playing football in front of a school, and a white man came and said we need some boys for a movie,” Attah said of Nesbit. “So we went and we auditioned at a TV station in Ghana, and I was cast. “

Nesbit saw over 600 kids in total, narrowing it down to 100 for the director to see. Fukunaga admitted that finding Attah that day was an extreme stroke of luck. “He was playing hooky from school that day,” said the director. “He improvised a scene in which his sister was taken away and he cried. It just showed that he had access to his emotions in a way that we were looking for when we’re casting a movie. We need people, especially kids, who can access that part of their imagination very easily in front of a camera.”