I really wish that films nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar were available before the awards were given out, so that just once I could fill out a ballot having seen them all. Only Amour got a big release and a bunch of hoopla! (And the Oscar, not so coincidentally.) Kon-Tiki opens in April. No and A Royal Affair have been around but only in limited release. And I was only able to see War Witch this week via a screener. I realize that if I lived in LA or New York, I could see more films earlier in their “limited releases,” and that they need that Oscar buzz for audiences around the country to venture out, but it makes me wonder how many wonderful small films from foreign lands we in the hinterlands never have a chance to see.
War Witch is a one of those amazing little films that would be worth seeing from a production standpoint alone. It is written and directed by half-Vietnamese, Canadian-born Kim Nguyen, and is the story of a a 12-year-old girl in an unnamed sub-Saharan African country. It was shot in the war-torn Democratic of the Congo with a mostly Congolese and mostly untrained cast, and the talented lead actress, Rachel Mwanza, was an illiterate street kid when she was hired for the part. (She won a best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival!) And despite or perhaps because of these challenges, War Witch is an extremely moving and unusual film. It is the story of Komona (Mwanza), who is kidnapped from her village at the age of 12 and forced to become a child soldier. Her first order is to kill her own parents. And she is given a horrible choice; shoot them yourself or they will be killed slowly by machete by the rebels. Soon she is in the thick of it, battling the government and trudging through the forests with the other children. But she proves herself indispensable when she sees the ghosts of her parents warning her of an ambush, and Great Tiger, the rebel leader, labels her his good luck charm, a “war witch” who will bring them victory.
Despite her elevated status, Komona soon escapes this life of killing with the only person who treats her with kindness, another child soldier, an albino named the Magician. Their romance is sweet, and their time together short, but it’s the perfect counterpoint to the horrors of living in perpetual war. They find out the hard way that you don’t leave the rebel army that easily. Komona begins the film as a girl and ends up a woman with a child. Interspersed throughout the film, Komona’s voice-over tells this child the story of her rebel life. Of course, no one should have to live through what this fictional girl and the real-life children of several central African countries do. And though the undercurrent is definitely a sociopolitical statement, the film is thankfully not preachy. War Witch is a slice of life movie, following Komona through two years of hell with a brief interlude of happiness. Fortunately most of the violence is off-screen, and what the audience sees is the effect on this girl who it turns out is anything but powerless. The imagery resonates, and the actress is amazing. You won’t forget it.
[One other reason I wish I could have seen this film sooner. The actress was on the Red Carpet and I missed her. Here are some pix of her. ]