There’s little joy in War Witch. Even a scene with big, booming laughter – a startling moment in an often wretched and upsetting film – is undercut by the tension of a loaded AK-47.
And yet, there are moments of tenderness. What makes the film so disturbing in its violence – that the characters are child soldiers – is also what makes those soft-hearted moments, as subtle and sparse as they are, deeply powerful. The child cannot simply be reduced to soldier. The innocence, though shattered, is not completely exhausted.
War Witch is the engrossing story of Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a 12-year-old girl kidnapped by rebel soldiers from her village in sub-Saharan Africa and pressed into the guerilla army of a warlord called Great Tiger. The opening scene sets the tone of the film: Komona is given a choice to shoot her parents – a clean death – or watch her kidnappers hack them with machetes.
She is, like the other surviving children of her village, brainwashed into servitude, and mercilessly trained in the life of war. In a scene reminiscent of films like Full Metal Jacket, the child soldiers are taught to love weapons as they would their own parents.
Soon Komona is singled out for her seemingly magical ability to foresee danger and becomes the rebel leader’s “war witch.”
Along the war trail, and amid the beatings rained down upon the fledgling soldiers, a love grows between Komona and another soldier, a 15-year-old albino boy named Magician (Serge Kanyinda).
It’s a strange sort of empathy, to connect with these killers, children, lovers. But it’s difficult not to. The moments between Komona and Magician are among the most powerful, a gritty look at the blurred boundary between childhood and the too-soon responsibilities of adulthood. The scenes are often enacted wordlessly, finely displaying Mwanza’s talent as a young actress.
Mwanza also narrates the film, speaking as Komona to her unborn child. Her voice is raw and husky, sometimes coming as a surprise. She rarely speaks during the film.
Canadian writer and director Kim Nguyen began writing the screenplay after reading a news story about child soldiers. His idea, he says, was to depict how human resilience can overcome the tragedies of war.
Though violence and brutality overshadow most of the film, the theme of resilience stubbornly shines through in rare moments, like in the courtship of the two young lovers, or in interactions with kind strangers, or during a scene when Magician play fights kung-fu style with another soldier.
War Witch was an Academy Award nominee for best foreign-language film, and was shot entirely in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It was a winner at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival, among other film festivals.
It’s not an easy film to watch, but it’s an important one – a serious and eye-opening drama with just enough humanity to preserve hope.
WAR WITCH (3) • Directed by Kim Nguyen • Starring Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda, Alain Lio Mic Eli Bastien • Not rated • 90 min. • At Osio Cinemas.