Thursday, September 12, 2013

FI: War Witch

War Witch / Rebelle
Canada, 2012
Written and directed by Kim Nguyen

For all its moral indignation and "Kony 2012" hype, the Western world rarely confronts the evil of child soldierhood on its own terms. But in Kim Nguyen's Oscar-nominated War Witch, that evil is presented as more of an everyday thing rather than some shocking affront to more "civilized" notions of warfare. Here, violence is a part of life, a constant threat that could erupt from the forest at any time. Set in the conflict-torn Democratic Republic of the Congo, the film tells the story of Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a 12-year-old girl whose village is raided by rebel forces loyal to the militant Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). Komona and other local kids are "recruited," forced to part with their old lives in the most unbearable fashion, and trained in the ways of guerrilla warfare. Under the tutelage of Magician (Serge Kanyinda), an albino boy with a gift for making gris-gris to ward off death, the recruits ingest "magic milk"—a hallucinogenic tree sap—and go off to battle. Komona then begins to see warnings from the spirits of the dead, played by actors in ashen body paint, and this talent gets noticed by Great Tiger himself, who thinks she's a lucky charm and makes her his new War Witch.

Nguyen goes for a largely realistic tone, but never moralizes or condescends to his characters or their world. He mixes in real locations and details of day-to-day Congolese life to let us see how much this constant conflict threatens to take away from people who already have so little. On top of this realism, Nguyen pays tribute to the region's tradition of oral history, framing things with Komona's narration in such a way that it almost feels like a dark, modern fairy tale. The way cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc plays with focus during Komona's first "magic milk" trip certainly conveys a sense of entering another, stranger world on a tangent to our own, without it feeling like a standard cinematic representation of drug use. Bolduc's methodical camera also works with Nguyen's documentary-style realism, with gripping hand-held work during battle scenes giving way to a more fluid, lyrical style during moments of respite.

War Witch relies on a largely non-professional cast, all of whom acquit themselves well, but Mwanza and Kanyinda stand out. As Komona, Mwanza delivers a raw, unflappable performance belying her amateur status, while Kanyinda has a natural charisma and insouciance that work well with his crafty character. Neither they, nor any of the rest of the young cast members, let us forget that we are watching children, here, children forced to do unspeakable things as a matter of course. The film shows us a loss of innocence, not just for one person but for a generation, if not an entire country. This sense of horror becoming normality, of the grudging acceptance of constant war, is powerful. But War Witch's real power comes via Komona's quest to regain innocence, or to at least find some kind of redemption. If people like Komona can set the tone of the future, there may yet be hope for a new, more peaceful normal.

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