War Witch is the 2013 Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign
Language Film. It was the official submission from Canada and it was
written and directed by Kim Nguyen, a Canadian man who gets into the
head of a teenage girl living along the river in Congo-Kinshasa. What's
great is that the film does immerse the audience in that country and
gives us an amazing window into the landscape and culture there, but
what isn't great is that we only walk in the shoes of that teenage girl
and we only see through her limited perspective, which means there's a
lot of context that we don't get but would have been easy for Nguyen to
include but instead his movie is pure emotion.
In several ways, Kim Nguyen's War Witch is similar to Angelina Jolie's In the Land of Blood and Honey. Both follow for the most part a girl or a woman in the middle of a war-torn area. Both follow as these girls witness or suffer human atrocities like the rape and murder of children. Both really don't provide context for the wars that they depict in their slices. One has to infer a lot to get the context. One has to infer less in Jolie's film than Nguyen's, but there are bigger narrative films or even documentaries that can provide that context. Nguyen just wants to do an intimate, first person film and he accomplishes that.
But, knowing that context would perhaps be helpful. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. That setting is referred to as DRC or as Congo-Kinshasa. The DRC is located in central Africa and is the second-largest country on that continent. It borders the Sudan and Uganda. Its population is 71 million. Its official language is French, and the DRC is currently plagued with civil wars.
The origins and the reasons for those civil wars are varied and complicated, but I'll try to simplify it. The current civil war in the DRC stems from the conflicts that began in Rwanda. It stems from the bigotry and insane rivalry between the Hutu group and the Tutsi group. The battles and fights between the Hutu and Tutsi bled over into the DRC, which led to the overthrow of President Mobutu in 1997. Mobutu had ruled for decades and his ousting caused chaos that continues today.
President Kabila took control after Mobutu but rebel forces assassinated Kabila in 2001. Kabila's son tried to negotiate peace with these rebel forces and have open elections, but the rebels weren't satisfied or other rebels rose up. These rebels persist today. Despite being heavily armed with machine guns like AK-47s, these rebels lose a lot of people in skirmishes with the government, so the rebels constantly need to recruit new members. How they recruit is by forcing children and teenagers to join their armies.
According to the United Nations, half of the world's child soldiers are in Africa at an estimate of 100,000. The Lord's Resistance Army, led by Joseph Kony from Uganda, was one of the chief offenders of creating child soldiers. It's not as if these armies go to African schools and ask the children nicely if they want to join or it's not as if they ask the permission of the children's parents. The armies instead kidnap the children and if any one tries to stop them like the parents, then those parents get killed.
The opening scene of War Witch is a depiction of this. Rachel Mwanza stars as Komona, a 12-year-old girl who gets kidnapped after watching her parents murdered. She's taken into the jungle where she's trained to be a soldier with the rebels. She's trained to be a heartless killer whose only purpose is to gun down men in the government's military. It's difficult and brutal, not only for her but also for us to watch.
Komona narrates her experiences. Some children, after a while with the rebels, become indoctrinated to the cause of the rebels. Other children simply do what they have to do to survive. Many of the children are orphans with nowhere else to go, so they easily fall in line or else they know they'll die. Komona is one such person who falls in line, but Nguyen's film embraces the mysticism and magical legends that exist in this culture.
Komona, like the boy in The Sixth Sense (1999), can see dead people. The deceased Africans appear to her in white face and in fact naked and painted in all-white body makeup. When she's sent out on the battlefield, these ghosts protect her or warn her from the government's military who kill off a lot of the rebels but her.
As a result, the rebels consider her a witch. The leader of the rebels is called Great Tiger, played by Mizinga Mwinga. When he hears about this young "witch," he wants to use her and he puts her under his protection. Yet, an African albino named the Magician, played by Serge Kanyinda, falls in love with Komona. When an opportunity arises, he escapes with Komona from the Great Tiger and the rebels.
I wish Nguyen would have explored the Great Tiger's character. Mwinga, in his brief appearance and lack of dialogue, looks gorgeous and gives off some intense charisma that relieves doubt as to why he's the leader but unfortunately makes you want more that Nguyen doesn't give. Yet, the love story between Komona and Magician is allowed to blossom and it does due to the intense chemistry between Mwanza and Kanyinda. Their performances here are when the movie really shines.
The film stays with Komona for two years until she's 14-years-old. When watching the film, it's easy to forget that she's that young. While children play video games that engage them in this kind of violence and war craft, the images that Nguyen present here are more visceral. The children here are actually engaging in this kind of violence and war craft. It's not a game. They are really killing people. They're really soldiers and that really slaps you in certain instances. It's disturbing and heart-breaking.
A glimmer of that is presented in Ed Zwick's Blood Diamond (2006), though Nguyen goes so much further. It's certainly an eye-opener. There's also plenty of shocking moments and jaw-droppers, but, throughout it all, despite the horrors of war to which Komona is a witness, in small ways, for her, love and compassion still persist within and without her.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but recommended for Mature Audiences.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 30 mins.