|Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda serve to live in War Witch|
«««1/2 War Witch. Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. Available on Netflix.
With the prospect of dying in action, permanent disability, PTSD, depression, and coping with a huge, faceless bureaucracy, being a military veteran from a First World country is daunting enough. Now imagine you are Komona, a girl kidnapped from her village by a rebel army in war-torn Congo. After watching many of your neighbors machine-gunned or hacked to death, the invaders force you to shoot your own parents to spare them an even more painful death. They take you away to a remote base, where you are overworked and underfed. Your captors hook you on a kind of psychotropic tree sap to keep you under control, and program you to love your assault rifle as your new mother and father. You are kept as the private concubine of your commanding officer, who forces you to bear his child. Imagine further that you are only twelve years old.
Grim as that all sounds, it's just the set-up for Kim Nguyen's searing War Witch (French title: Rebelle). The film was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2012. While it was passed over for Asghar Farhadi's A Separation, what the Canadian-born Nguyen has done here deserves second place to nothing—and not only because its premise is about as dark as it gets. It's also remarkable for the humane moments that, ironically, give the grim ones even more power.
It should go without saying this is not just fiction. Many Americans are familiar with the problem of child soldiers in Africa and Asia through the dubious "Kony 2012" tornado that rose and faded on social media last year. As in Nguyen's script, these conflicts are waged not just AK's and machetes, but with the kind of "black ops" that seem more appropriate to the 16th century, not the 21st. Here, Komona survives her ordeal partly because she has a supernatural ability to sniff out government ambushes before they're sprung. Her supreme commander (Mizinga Mwinga) hails her as his "war witch"—a rare honor, except that he's killed two of his previous witches for failing to deliver victories.
As Komona, Rachel Mwanza realizes what any director of this kind of material dreams about: a performance that is as frank and natural as it is free of obvious craft. Having discovered Mwanza living on the streets of Kinshasa, Nguyen cast her as his lead despite the fact that she couldn't read or write. It was an inspired choice. Mwanza commands the screen both by her understated presence and by her spare narration, addressed to the yet-unborn child conceived through her rape. She's not good just in the harrowing parts, either: the film's middle section, where Komona finds a measure of happiness with a young albino boy (Serge Kanyinda), has its own gentle power, in large part due to Mwanza's scabby kind of innocence. To Nguyen's further credit, after the cameras stopped he made arrangements for his star's education until the age of eighteen.
War Witch isn't pleasant viewing—but it just may be essential to any understanding of how deep "awful" can truly go. All war may be Hell, but even Hell has its levels.
© 2013 Nicholas Nicastro