“JOHNNY MAD DOG” writer-director, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
[PREMIERE SCREENING: Friday, Jan. 16, 8:30 am — Prospector Square Theatre, Park City]
Johnny Mad Dog is based on a novel by Emmanuel Dongala. At first, I wrote a faithful adaptation of the book following the same narrative construction, which was centered on two main characters: Johnny, a 15-year-old child soldier, and Laokolé, a 13-year-old girl who runs away with her family. They are in the same situation in the last days of a civil war in Africa. The same unit of time, place and space. Two roads which cross paths, two different points of view, two destinies.
Once this first version of the scenario was completed, we began to look for financing to start preproduction on the film.
The second step was for me to research the reality of the scenario, to know if all the stories like those described in the book had really taken place during the war. I then went to Liberia in 2004, a country that had experienced 14 years of civil war and was believed to have used many child soldiers.
My work then consisted of meeting ex-child soldiers, ex-generals, those who fought beside Charles Taylor or beside LURD. At the same time, I began the casting and location scouting for the film. During several months, I plunged my scenario into the reality of the situation. Having selected 15 children, ex-child soldiers, to play the “small boy unit” in the film, I settled down with them, and we lived together under the same roof during one year to prepare the film. I told them sequences and they improvised from their own experiences. This allowed me to rewrite the scenario and the dialogue to be as close as possible to what actually happened.
The adaptation of the book was then transformed into something more raw, erasing little by little the psychology of the characters and the classic narrative weft of the story, for the benefit of the documentary style and the authentic reimagining of sequences. How to imagine giving a child soldier a psychological distance while it is exactly for this total absence of consciousness that these children soldiers were used?
The film found its own identity little by little, taking away the narrative structure to become a film much more visceral than informative. With this transformation, the film became perhaps less accessible to a wide public, although free of any conventional constraints.
It was important that this film depict the point of view of the children in this war. I wanted to immerse the spectator in the madness, the chaos, the violence, by making him live the events himself rather than staying in his comfortable position, outside of the story. Give him a real experience rather than a classic narrative structure. It seems to me that this is what has to evolve the cinema today, to provoke, to move, to involve the audience, whatever the method of distribution. The cinema as an experience to make us more sensitive to and understanding of our current world.