CANNES, France (Reuters) - A powerful new film, made with a cast of former child soldiers from Liberia and shot in the streets of Monrovia, depicts the brutal chaos of civil wars that have consumed generations of African children.
"Johnny Mad Dog," by French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, follows a band of Kalashnikov-toting boys with names like "No Good Advice," "Small Devil" and "Jungle Rocket" as they advance on the capital of an unnamed African country.
The cast, mostly former child soldiers themselves, lend a near-documentary authenticity to a film based on a novel of the same name by Emmanuel Dongala.
"I wanted to be very close to reality," he told Reuters at the Cannes film festival where the film is being shown.
"I needed to tell the truth about this subject. I didn't just want to take a child, a gun and to make an action movie."
Shot in a raw, dynamic style, his film paints a harrowing picture of a world where children are ripped from their families and made into amoral killers used by leaders of whom they are only vaguely aware.
Christopher Minie, who plays the teenaged Johnny Mad Dog and his subordinate, No Good Advice played by Dagbeh Tweh, mix callous brutality with occasional flashes of humanity that show the child that still exists beneath the cold-eyed killers.
"All the actors in the movie are non-professional actors but they have all had experience of the war," Sauvaire said.
"You can't imagine these kind of things, which is why it was very important for me to shoot this movie in Liberia with these kind of people," he said.
Dressed in bizarre outfits including colored wigs, a wedding dress, an American football helmet and a pair of angels wings, the fighters, themselves drugged and brutalized by their older commander, casually kill, rape and loot.
Amid the madness and terror, 13-year-old Laokole, played by Daisy Victoria Vandy, tries to save her legless father and younger brother, dodging through burned-out buildings and empty streets to avoid marauding gangs.
No accurate statistics exist on how many children have been recruited as soldiers in recent years but a report this week by the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers says tens of thousands have stopped fighting since 2004 as a long-running cycle of civil wars in Africa has ended.
Sauvaire said he had deliberately kept the setting vague because although the civil war in Liberia may have ended, the wider problem remained.
"Today we're talking here in Cannes and there are children fighting in Chad or Asia or the Middle East and to me it was very important to do a universal movie talking about child soldiers," he said.
The film coincides with the trial of former Liberian leader Charles Taylor, who is accused of a series of crimes committed during a civil war in which bands of drugged child soldiers played a leading part.
Sauvaire said he hoped the film, which will be shown in Liberia in the coming months, would help as the country finds its way back to peace after more than a decade of war.
"They told me, 'we want to talk about this, we need to talk about this, we don't want to do the same thing in a few years," he said. "The movie is also a way of understanding what happened in this war."