CAPSULE: WAR WITCH (2012)

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DIRECTED BY: Kim Nguyen

FEATURING: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda

PLOT: Rebels abduct a 12-year old girl from her African village and force her to become a soldier; when her military commanders decide she has magical powers, she is declared the army’s “war witch.”

Still from War Witch (2012)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: The tiny dash of magic realism that’s added to soften the blow of the tragic realism isn’t enough to turn this all-too-believable drama into a weird movie.

COMMENTS: The blank-faced girl begins narrating her story to her unborn baby, in the process praying, “I hope God will give me the strength to love you.” It’s a harsh opening for a hard movie, but despite the themes of war, cruelty, and child slavery, War Witch finds ways to not be a complete downer. The plot has three clearly defined acts, each tracking a year of Komona’s life. It begins at the age of 12, when armed men in canoes storm the riverside shantytown she lives in, killing most of the residents and carrying her off as a slave. By 13 she has found a beau and hope for the future in the person of a young albino magician (named “Magician”) who courts her according to folk traditions, and by age 14 she is a woman of the world, having suffered enough pain and heartbreak for two lifetimes. Writer/director Kim Nguyen delivers plenty of gruesome and cruel moments but chooses not to linger over them, and lets beams of light pierce the darkness. The sunny Congolese locations, from the mysterious forest full of ghosts to the field of boulders (also full of ghosts) can be sublime. Komona and Magician (first time actors Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda) both do well and share a touchingly naïve romance, especially in light of the awful things they have suffered and the awful things they have been forced to do. There is a minor fairytale ambiance to the proceedings, what with the child witches and wizards, accusatory ghosts, and an evil warlord (known by the sobriquet “the Great Tiger”) ensconced in an improbably grand tower in the middle of the jungle. A visit to a hidden albino village to find a semi-mythological creature provides another fable-like moment. The movie accepts the existence of magic and never questions local superstitions; for example, a man casually asks for a gris-gris to protect him against war as payment for helping the children. After drinking “magic milk” (the hallucinogenic sap of a local tree), Komona gains the ability to see ghosts. The apparitions, corpses caked in white clay with blank eyes, are simple and effective, and they begin to haunt the girl everywhere. They warn her of an ambush set by government soldiers, allowing her alone to escape and giving her the reputation of a witch. The movie never gives us any reason to question the accuracy of Komona’s visions, which in the end take on a crucial psychological importance for the girl. Nguyen mixes childish imagination and voodoo practices with military reality to brew up a unique world we have not seen on film before. Unfortunately, with the fantasy elements stripped away, this world is far too recognizable from cable news broadcasts. “It’s a hard world for little things,” mourned Rachel Cooper in Depression-era Appalachia in Night of the Hunter; on another continent, in another millennium, her pronouncement still rings sadly true in War Witch.

At no point in War Witch does the movie explain what country it is set in, or who the rebels are or what they are supposedly fighting for. The movie was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), however, and clues suggest that the action is set there, including the fact that the rebels fund their insurgency by mining coltan, an exotic mineral found mostly in the Congo. The Second Congo War, which officially ended in 2003, still lingers on with outbreaks of ethnic violence and warlordism to this day; it has been called the deadliest conflict since World War II. Some 30,000 children have been conscripted to shed blood for both sides. The notorious Joseph Kony, the cult leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army, has operated out of the DRC, and may be the model for War Witch‘s Great Tiger.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“… [a] gripping, surreal African child soldier drama…”-Ky N. Ngyuen, Washington Diplomat (contemporaneous)

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