Kim Nguyen directs the tale of Komona the war witch with absolutely no holds barred…
An old adage says that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Filming techniques and acting styles differ greatly in movies made today than they did back in the first years of cinema, but stories have often been, and still frequently are, inspired by real-life events. In the 1930s, gangster pictures were all the rage, and even though they primarily functioned as escapist fun, they were also based on some real-life incidences and people. The practice of creating fictional stories inspired by real-life situations continue to this day, only that now, with people being more connected to the entire world than ever before, the story possibilities can come from anywhere around the globe. Writer-director Kim Nguyen takes viewers to Sub-Saharan African (the actual filming location was the Democratic Republic of Congo) for War Witch (also known as Rebelle), a shocking story that unfortunately feels all too real.
In an undisclosed African country, a war rages between the established government and rebel forces. The focus of War Witch is not on the government forces, who remain, just like the country itself, faceless, but rather on the side of the disaffected uprising. This is no vision of honest rebellion steeped in romantic ideas of peace and justice, but a harsh, unforgiving army of men who take away children and young teenagers from their villages to train as full-fledged soldiers. One such child is 12-year old Komona (Rachel Mwanza), witness to the massacre of nearly her entire village at the hands of the bloodthirsty rebels, who then, as a test to see if she is worthy of joining their cause, force her to murder her own parents at gunpoint. The subsequent trek through the woods is physically and emotionally demanding, as the adult troops rarely hesitate to beat her and the other young ones who slow down the group’s pace. There is one boy, known only as of the Magician, much paler in skin tone and bleach-blond hair, who shows genuine concern for Komona’s well being. Together they form a cautious friendship which eventually develops into something more. Leaving the rebellion will not be easy, however. The leader, Grand Tigre (Mizinga Mwinga) sees Komona as a valuable asset, having declared her his side’s war witch. The ‘witch’ and the ‘magician’ do make an escape attempt one day, although the Grand Tigre’s forces are never far behind.
The decision to never reveal the country in which the action transpires can be assessed in two different ways. The first, which retracts any credit the filmmakers might earn, is that it smacks of certain laziness far too often present in Western films (despite what the plot synopsis might hint at, War Witch is a Canadian film). The multiple nations that make up the African continent are lumped into a single, overarching category, ‘Africa’, that overlooks the specificity of each. However, the film that is War Witch comes across as far too mature in its grittiness, too confident in its pacing and assured in its depiction of the horrors of war for laziness to be accepted as the most accurate assessment of director Nguyen’s depiction of the mystery nation. Which brings forth the second analysis of the two, arguing that the anonymous nature of the locale speaks to the terrifying frequency at which children are thrust into warfare in the Third World. It is a depressing, sad assessment, yes, but one that is frustratingly accurate. The reality of warfare in countries across the African continent (although the issue of child soldiers is not limited to Africa) is that youth are dragged, forced even into participating, sometimes quite directly, in military campaigns.
War Witch Proves Canadian Cinema Can Think Outside the Box
This harsh truth driving the story concerning child soldiers is a crucial aspect, among others, which emphasizes the picture’s grittiness. Kim Nguyen directs the tale of Komona the war witch with absolutely no holds barred. The movie is clearly not for the faint of heart. Smiles and jokes are pretty rare, coming only on the occasions when Komona and the Magician find themselves alone and in love, but even those instances appear brief when compared to the relentlessness of the violence dictating the circumstances of their surroundings. Komona shoots down her own mother and father, engages in combat with other children and teenagers whom the viewer sees killed by gunfire, and becomes the sex slave of the Grand Tigre’s chief commander (Alain Lino Bastien). Despite what little reprieve her time spent with the Magician may award, everything else, stark in contrast, pushes her to react far beyond the limits of decency than she otherwise would in order to fend off pressing danger. One need only consider the manner in which she separates herself from the chief commander of the rebel army and the physically uncomfortable aftermath resulting from the risk she takes. Without revealing exactly what she does, suffice to say that some in the audience will be feeling a little bit queasy. War Witch makes no apologies for the violence depicted, nor the slimy, debauchery several characters engage in. As stated, Komona is compelled to fight back at times, employing shocking strategies, but through it, all her humanity is never lost. Director Nguyen keeps her character sufficiently grounded and compelling for the audience to never lose sight of the good residing inside of her. Rachel Mwanza, who plays the part of Komona, also deserves credit for bringing a character as complex as her to life. She juggles two drastically opposed forces currently at war in her mind and heart: the obliteration of her innocence as a teen and the instinctive goodness found in youth.
Speaking of innocence, the choice of having Komona narrate the tale as if speaking to her nearly born child is genius The baby, nestled snugly inside its mother is still innocent, oblivious to humanity’s culpability and stupidity. In a cinematic sense, however, her narration to the unborn child is, by extension, narration to the audience. Most who see War Witch in the cozy confines of a theatre have, thankfully for them, never lived in the same shoes as Komona, which makes them as innocent as her baby. Just as the unborn is unconcerned about the ongoing war, so are most in the West about the plight of the innocent caught up in their daily struggles to survive in Third World conflicts.
Let it be made clear that, even though War Witch is a harsh experience that asks a lot out of the audience so far as willingness to see a pitiful, unenviable lifestyle, Kim Nguyen sprinkles the film with some peculiar stylistic touches which lend it a special sense of identity. As Komona narrates her tale to both her unborn child, she reveals that dreams of ghosts haunt her almost every night. Soon, these apparitions do not limit themselves to Komona’s dreams, but during her waking hours as well. Every now and then one, two or more people painted entirely in white, with special contacts to make their eyes completely white, appear out of nowhere, watching the violence, other time warning Komona of approaching danger. They are the ghosts of everyone who has perished as a result of the war, who have no place to go at the moment, and in the case of some, like the ghosts of her own parents, they require proper burial before completely exiting this world and entering the next. The religious customs of her culture and the after-effects of combat are thus visualized in a provocative, unexpected way. Another scene occurs at night time at the Grand Tigre’s main base of operations. The rebellion has just experienced what one assumes is a critical victory in their ongoing campaign, encouraging them to celebrate with an evening of alcohol, chanting, and dancing. The scene is hypnotic in its visual and aural depiction. It is an unabashed celebration of violence, of might over reason, involving people whose only goal at the moment is to do just that: kill in order to obtain what they want. It may read a little bit odd, but Nguyen’s direction, particularly in the instances mentioned above, gives off a slight Apocalypse Now vibe. There is lunacy to some of the scenes which ironically feel just right for the material.
War Witch is an unexpectedly provocative Canadian film that feels just about as un-Canadian as possible. In an age when cinephiles north of the 49th parallel bemoan the current state of their homegrown cinema talent, it is refreshing to see one writer-director think outside the box and realize that jingoistic, wink-wink depictions of the great white north are not essential for the purpose of, first, getting a film made and, second, getting a good film made. A crowd War Witch most certainly is not, but it is brave project. Sometimes caution needs to be thrown to the wind in order to simply tell a good, thought-provoking story.
- Edgar Chaput