A micro-budget indie film co-produced between Canada and the Philippines, Boy From Nowhere (2023) reminds me most of Steven Soderbergh’s tactile Che (2008). Using a similar messy, “put together” handheld style to Soderbergh’s digital-guerilla masterpiece, Boy From Nowhere (directed by the Canadian documentarian S.J. Finlay) runs through the forested and mountainous set pieces with its orphaned boy turned child soldier lead, Gary (Gary Jumawan). The film is also apolitical, like Che, in the best way a film can be apolitical: it strips bare suffering in a way politically loaded films cannot. (For the love of God, I still want a truly Marxist bio-picture of Che Guvera, though that’s probably an oxy-moron in itself.)
The film’s premise will instantly recall Beasts of No Nation, the 2015 streaming sensation about child soldiers shot by westerner Cary Joji Fukunaga. And while I think Beasts is a good film, the American presence seeps from behind the camera into major roles, including that of Idris Elba, and even the language of the film which, in turn, dictates an English language audience. (And yes, I understand the film was shot in Ghana, a country that lists English as their official language—but the film takes place in an unspecified West African country, not Ghana.) If you want to tell an indigenous story, at the bare minimum, one must commit to indigenous talent.
Finlay, as a seasoned documentarian, must know this well. Every actor appears to be native Filipino, coming from various parts of the southern Philippine island Mindanao. Moreover, since Finlay and his camera both know the film is only as good as Jumawan’s Gary can take them, our view of the boy is more or less unimpeded for the entirety of the film’s short runtime. The talent behind the camera lacks indigenous representation, but I’m not sure you could ask for much more without simply pandering for the sake of pandering.
The decision to shoot the majority of the film from his perspective is not only economical (in multiple senses of the word) but also smart: there’s no other way to do this story justice from any other perspective. We learn things as Gary learns them, not before; the camera trips and falls when he does, and the forests of Mindanao enclose as his world shrinks. The “guerilla” cinematography perfectly matches the hellish story, in which a child’s life is brought to ruins by bigger players in a game he doesn’t even know he’s part of. In the film’s final moments, as a semblance of normality is returned to Gary, the camera settles into place and makes everything feel safe, if not right, for the first time.
Here’s where the apolitical tendencies are important. Gary, simply based on the happenstance of who offers him food and shelter, finds himself embedded in gang activity and eventually takes refuge with a Marxist rebel group. A political version of this story makes too much out of the “Marxist” or social-inequity of it all, things that are too politically mature for Gary. Moreover, the reality seems to be that the children aren’t drawn into these armies based on Maoist political theory or critical analysis of the Filipino economy. No. They are drawn in because the rebel groups offer to meet their basic material needs, offer them bread and a place to sleep. Gary’s world isn’t political: it just sucks; the political take of this same story would have to stray from the child’s perspective, which I fear, would forsake the film’s greatest asset.
It’s not often the case that the apolitical version of the story is the braver version, but I think it’s true for Boy From Nowhere since de-politicizing the story necessitates a lukewarm sympathy for the rebels—showing that they too are victims of systems of abuse—without being able to show said (political) systems but still showing the grotesque realities of the child soldiers and the hard to stomach lack of restraint from the rebels. It’s much easier, and expedient, to make the rebels imperceptibly personified monsters but that’s not what Finlay’s film does and that alone makes this a film worth seeing.
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