Ezra is the first film to give an African perspective on the disturbing phenomenon of abducting child soldiers into the continent's recent civil wars. It was awarded the Grand Prize at the 2007 Festival Panafricain du Cinema a Ouagadougou (FESPACO), Africa's largest and most prestigious film event, and was selected for the International Critics Week at the 2007 Cannes Film Festival. Ezra stands out among other African films because it is a complex psychological study, not just of the brutalizing, healing and reintegration into society of one of thousands of traumatized former child soldiers, but also as a key for reconstructing these societies themselves.
Ezra is structured around the week-long questioning of a 16 year old boy, Ezra, before a version of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, created in Sierra Leone in 2002 in the wake of its decade long civil war. This hearing is then inter-cut with chronological flashbacks to pivotal moments during Ezra's ten years in the rebel faction which made him who he is. These commissions, based on the idea of transitional justice and modeled on the one in South Africa, were meant not to be punitive but restorative and therapeutic, both for the violated and the violators. Only after Ezra confronts his crimes, how he came to commit them and repents, will he be ready to rejoin society as well as make peace with himself. In a sense, the audience is placed in the position of the judges, initially seeing Ezra only in terms of his crimes against humanity, but, gradually coming to realize he is more a victim than a victimizer.
The 16 year old Ezra who appears before the tribunal is an unsympathetic, angry, deeply disturbed young man. He takes no responsibility for the atrocities he committed, rationalizing that he was a soldier, and soldiers kill, so why should he be brought before the Commission? He falls back on political justifications, arguing that he was just a fighter for equality and against corruption in Sierra Leone. He is in such deep denial about his past crimes that he suffers from amnesia; some might label him as suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome.
The film begins, however, by showing us another Ezra, a carefree six year old on his way to school on a calm summer morning, July 13, 1992. Just as class begins, the quiet erupts into mayhem, as a squad of insurgents, firing machine guns, bursts into the schoolyard and randomly kidnaps a dozen children, including Ezra. When one boy begins to cry, he is shot without a second thought, further terrorizing the children. They immediately set out on an exhausting, day and night, forced march, swallowed up by the dense, disorienting jungle, until they reach the distant rebel camp. There they confront the intimidating warlord, Rufus, who, like any effective totalitarian, immediately begins to strip them of their old identities to impose a new one on them. He orders them to forget their past, forget religion, forget their families: from now on the Brotherhood is their only family, they are reborn as warriors, to fight and die for the cause. He rallies them to destroy the corrupt governing elite which had, in fact, colluded with Western diamond interests for thirty years to steal the nation's vast wealth from its impoverished people.
The story then skips forward; Ezra is now a teenager, armed with an AK 47, the leader of a rebel battalion, totally immersed in the culture of the Brotherhood, his peers substituting for his family, as gangs do in our own inner cities. The government has called an election and the rebels have declared anyone who votes an 'enemy of the people.' Their slogan, 'No Hands, No Vote,' gave rise to one of the most heinous and distinctive crimes of Sierra Leone's civil war: the mass amputation of people's hands. On January 6, 1999, Ezra's battalion is ordered to attack and exterminate three villages. Each soldier is injected with methamphetamines and they begin a ruthless, four-day rampage, their brains exploding with hallucinations, manic energy and boundless confidence. At one village, Ezra jumps on top of a hut, dancing and firing bullets randomly through the tin roof, ordering his battalion to fire-bomb the house. Meanwhile Ezra's sister Omitcha is attacked by a rebel who cuts out her tongue. It is only later that Ezra learns that he has facilitated the murder of his own mother and father because Omitcha has escaped to tell the tale.
Back at Rufus' headquarters, a captured diamond mine, Ezra meets another young revolutionary, Miriam, the daughter of a left-wing journalist murdered by the government. They fall in love and she becomes pregnant. Perhaps their new identity as a couple and expecting parents allows them to distance themselves from the Brotherhood. They become increasingly suspicious that Rufus' goals may not be political liberation but personal power. We have already seen him receiving a shipment of methamphetamines from a white trader, presumably in return for diamonds.
Ezra finally flees the Brotherhood but is soon captured by a rival rebel faction, tortured and forced to reveal the location of Rufus' diamond mine. This second rebel group is portrayed as no better than the Brotherhood; in fact, we see several white agents delivering boxes of rifles to them. An outlaw to both the Brotherhood and the government, Ezra decides Miriam, his sister and himself must escape Sierra Leone at once. But as the three begin the bus ride out of Freetown, they are ambushed by yet another rebel faction. Just then, a government unit arrives, attacks the rebels, and Miriam and her unborn child are killed in the indiscriminate crossfire. A devastated Ezra is taken prisoner by the army, bringing the story up to his appearance before the Commission.
As the hearings come to a close, accused by his sister of murdering his own parents, Ezra collapses, physically and mentally. In the final scene, Ezra confesses to his therapist that he knows he has killed many people's parents and the suffering he has caused. This may mark his first uncertain steps towards social and psychic rehabilitation. The film clearly symbolizes the challenges facing Sierra Leone and other nations devastated by civil war. It acknowledges the irrevocable horrors of the past, the need for achieving reconciliation in the present and the hope of forging a productive and equitable new national identity for the future.
The film ends with an overview of the problem of child soldiers: 'In 2000, nearly 300,000 children were being exploited as soldiers throughout 30 countries. Close to 120,000 of these child soldiers were in Africa. Weapons continue to be imported into Africa in exchange for diamonds, oil and other natural resources. The children continue to fight and the entire next generation will suffer as a result.'
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