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Aug 26, 2013

Review: War Witch (2012)

           Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda, Mizinga Mwinga, Ralph Prosper, Jean Kabuya, Jupiter Bokondji, Starlette Mathata, Alex Herabo, Dole Malalou and Karim Bamaraki


                   Kim Nguyen


                 War Witch (Rebelle) is a Canadian drama film from last year that was the official entry for Canada in the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar category. It ended up being one of the five nominees. Not only that but it was in competition at the Venice Film Festival where, Rachel Mwanza won the Silver Bear for Best Actress. This movie was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but in the movie, specific location is not given thus making it any one's story within the entire region. War Witch begins with a 12 year old girl named Komona being abducted by the rebel forces during the civil war to become a child soldier. She is given a gun and a choice to kill her parents with her own hands or rather watch them die a much more painful death by them. Komona, along with the other captives are taken up the river via motorized canoe into a forest where the grueling and painful training process begins. They are kept in the most worse situations imaginable, forced to use guns and to become killing machines, beating them regularly and not giving them enough food. Komona's imagination is what works for her in the middle of all this. She sees visions of ghosts in trees who warns her of the enemies location. After escaping an ambush in a similar situation with the ghosts, the Great Tiger of these rebels gives her the title of his protective War Witch. She becomes friends with an albino boy named Magician who is not much older than she is. They run away, he asks her to marry her and for a while the movie shifts to a much beautiful love story in the middle of this horror. The magician's uncle known as the Butcher helps them and understands them having been the victim of barbarism himself. War Witch begins in a brutal way, giving us initial shock and a look at what is next to come. It is excruciating to watch these children been put up to something the adults would even dread and will not want to be a part of in their worst nightmares. Its difficult to watch, there is much brutality and deaths happens. The process of making these innocent children, both male and female who should rather be playing, into children with guns and killing others is devastating.

                 What i loved about those parts was how much the director didn't make everything into exploitation or showing everything in a way that is either depicting something specific or commenting on anything but just what happens and how it happens. His focus is not much on how or why though but on what it does. The moment when you see Komona after drinking the sap, starting seeing the ghosts is very magical and surreal. There is no shift of pace or tone due to that element, the plot remains intact. It is just a mean of giving us the internal reassurance of a girl who finds peace and salvation while being externally treated in brutal ways. She sees her parents and other people who have died in the situation she is in. They are just people who can be anybody. The magical, haunting and very serene atmosphere that is created by the mix of the ghost presence and African folk/pop songs is quite surprising considering the brutality that takes up the most part. That particular achievement is astonishing. It is giving us a sense of how Komona is perceiving all that is happening or did happen to her. She is getting stronger and more stronger physically and emotional wise but this is how she finds peace, inner peace. Now that i am talking about Komona, lets talk about the brilliant performance by Rachel Mwanza. I wish she was more appreciated in her role elsewhere as well, really happy that she won best actress at Venice. For such a young actress to convincingly carry out a role that requires her to not only be mature but surrounded by unspeakable horror is brilliant. That alone is a big achievement for her but she does far more than that. The way she takes us with her through all this with all different kind of emotions is amazing. Mwanza makes sure that this sudden change in the life of her character, her inevitable entry in being a full on fighter, her discovery of love and her desire to go back, start the life that she deserves and bring peace into her life, is delivered with all its honesty.

                 War Witch has very good cinematography, mostly hand-held, guerrilla type of filmmaking but not overtly shaky or head spinning. The camera seems to be following the characters, it goes chaotic during the fight scenes and remains quite during the much more calm moments. Excellently written and directed. War Witch turns into a very honest love story when both the characters run away. There is still some humor, like how Komona demands Magician to catch a specific type pf chicken (which is impossible to find) and only after then she will marry him. That part itself is portrayed in an honest way, it is not trying to be a gimmick, not trying to be anything other than serving its own purpose within the narrative. Unfortunately those days for her are not everlasting as she is taken back, treated far worse and is raped. That was only the beginning of the brutality for her. War Witch doesn't have a happy ending, neither can it. But its all about surviving the worse and trying to move on any way you can making peace with yourself. In its own way though, the ending is happy but far from it. It is quite emotional to see all that Komona has been through, beginning from how she was forced to kill her parents to how she is burying their things as she holds her own child. Definitely a tough film to watch and a very harrowing experience. Not sure if you will be able to forget what happens in this movie. Featuring brilliant performance by Mwanza and expertly handled by Kim Nguyen, War Witch is a extraordinary film. Must watch this gem if you haven't already.

Grade: A-