I have never been directly involved in an African civil war. I have read a fair bit about them, the tragedies drawn up on racial lines, the devastating effect upon the population and the vicious cycles it seems to set up. And more recently the stories of child soldiers, from as young as six, turned into killing machines, fighting a fight they barely understand with ferocious savagery. Johnny Mad Dog is the first African film I have seen to deal with it and is a powerful piece of work. Possibly because many of its lead actors are ex-child soldiers themselves, the question “what happens to these brutalised children afterwards” becomes even more germane. But perhaps its power is derived from its visual aesthetic: brutal, rough and surprisingly reminiscent of future dystopia comics.

There is a visual shorthand which for me comes from the tales in 2000AD, though others may lean on the Mad Max films. Post-apocalyptic wastelands will be full of kids wearing the most bizarre of get-ups, afro-wigs and shoulder pads, gun toting tots in ironically cute T-Shirts, tall strapping gawky lads in wedding dresses. All coupled with state of the art weaponry, bombing down the road in inappropriate souped up cars. The cars in Johnny Mad Dog may not be souped up, but as they travel through their own war ravaged landscape these boys look as bizarre as the gangs in the comics. OK, none of them look like they were drawn by Carlos Ezquerra, which is probably good for them, but from the strange accessories, dumb nicknames and ultra-violence, this could be a 2000AD strip made flesh. Well, that and this war ravages landscape has a lot more greenery than any 2000AD post-apocalyptic dystopia too.

Except the film also peddles a relentless realism. So you have a nasty teenage boys comic fantasy representing some sort of reality, some sort of statement on the effects of these horrible civil wars. The effect is to leave these emotionally dead, aggressive soldiers who are near impossible to rehabilitate. When brutality is normalised, what is left for the individual. Whilst Johnny in the film is sympathetic by virtue of his situation, and seems a touch more forgiving than his troop, he still murders and rapes and is much, much more brutal than any child should be. There are moments of play, set around the violence but its not proper play, just as these kids have had no space to grow up in. The opening may be the closest this film gets to a cliché, with a new recruit proving his mettle by being forced to kill his own father, but it is still remarkably telling as to how that creates these child soldiers.

The film trades its brutality in its final scenes for a clash between Johnny and films other lead: Laokole, a girl who has tried to keep her father, an amputee from a previous conflict, alive. The two threads weave through the film until we get to an ending which is remarkably tense: showing the remarkable agency of both of our leads. The film it most resembles in tone is City Of God, but imagine a less formal, more aggressive and more breathless treatment of even more senseless violence and you will not be far off. But then factor in the 2000AD dress code and you’ll be there. Possibly the best film to come out of anglophone Africa I can think of.