Using documentary style technique but with a biting and controversial script, Canadian writer/director Kim Nguyen has created an astonishing account of a girl soldier struggling to survive in a conflict-torn central African state in WAR WITCH (originally titled REBELLE), which opens the Human Rights Watch Film Festival at New York’s Lincoln Center this week. Non-professional actress Rachel Mwanza gives a multi-layered performance as Komona, a young girl who is forced to become a murderous soldier, yet still retains her hold on a fragile humanity deep within her soul that will hopefully allow her to transcend her circumstances. In her very first acting role, Mwanza has already garnered critical acclaim for her astounding performance, winning the Silver Bear Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival, where the film made its world premiere in competition, as well as the Best Actress in a Narrative Feature Film Award at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film itself took home the Founders Award for best narrative feature at Tribeca, where it made its North American premiere.
The film begins with a disturbing knockout opening sequence, with rebel soldiers invading her village, abducting 12-year-old Komona and forcing her to kill her own parents. Forced to survive deep in the jungle with few provisions, Komona and her fellow abductees are issued AK-47s and told that for now on, these weapons will be their mothers and fathers. While leading a patrol through the foliage, Komona comes across the ghosts of her own parents, who warn her to run just in time before the government forces open fire. Due to her ability to see gray ghosts in the trees that warn her of approaching enemies, she is deemed a sorceress and bestowed the title of War Witch by the supreme leader of the rebels, Great Tiger (played with authority by Mizinga Mwinga). The shamanistic title means that she will be treated with a little more dignity than the others. However, like her fellow conscripts, Komona still has to dig for coltan, a metallic ore and one of several so-called “blood minerals” over which factions are fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the film was shot. Eventually, Komona and a fellow soldier run off together and find some idyllic communion that is a welcome breather from the scenes of brutal carnage.
While the film does offer the prospect of a possible reversal of fortune for its young leads, it also reinforces the brutality and dehumanizing practice that continues to haunt this part of the world. Nguyen, who has made several fantasy films in a more commercial mode, dishes out the moral lessons amidst the carnage, along with a few pleasures…..particularly an elegant soundtrack of African folk and pop music and the raw but often beautiful cinematography of Nicolas Bolduc. For more information on the Human Rights Watch Film Festival, visit: http://ff.hrw.org/new-york