Directed by: Kim Nguyen.
Written by: Kim Nguyen.
Starring: Rachel Mwanza (Komona), Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien (Commandant Rebelle), Serge Kanyinda (Magicien), Ralph Prosper (Le Boucher), Mizinga Mwinga (Grand Tigre Royal).
Writer/director Kim Nguyen makes an interesting decision in War Witch, which both helps and hurts the film. The film is centered on Komona, who is a young girl who is kidnapped from her home in Africa, forced to kill her parents, and is trained to be a child soldier. The entire film is told from her point of view – she is thrust into a war she doesn’t understand, and as such neither does the audience. I’m not sure what country the movie is supposed to take place in, or what the War Lord she is forced to work for is fighting for – and neither, I suspect, does Komona. The movie doesn’t offer us any insight into this aspect of its story – which might have worked had the film given us more a sense of Komona. However, she is so traumatized by what happens to her that she doesn’t make a very good entry point, even into her own story. Watching the film I was frustrated, because I felt that I was constantly on the outside of everything in the film.
The performance by Rachel Mwanza – who was only 13 when she shot the film – does an excellent job at conveying this trauma, and all her confusion. She is taken from everything she knows and forced to kill people for reasons she does not comprehend. She falls in love, in a way, with a slightly older boy – known as the Magician (Serge Kanyinda) – although her notion of what love constitutes is very childish. She becomes the favored “War Witch” of the Grand Tigre, the war lord who kidnapped her, because her dead parents appear to her in visions, and direct her away from danger. And when the Grand Tigre’s woman dies, he takes Komona as his “lover” as well – although what he does to her is clearly rape – until she exacts a fitting (and brutal) revenge on him.
I admired much of War Witch – the performances are about as good as they can be, given that the movie is locked into Komona’s point of view, and she doesn’t really understand herself, or anyone around her. The handheld camera work is impressive in that it never becomes vomit inducing, and keeps the action clear.
Yet, I cannot help but think that the film doesn’t quite work. There is an contradiction in the central character that I could never quite resolve – she sees so much, and grows up so fast in many ways, yet remains such a naïve child in other ways and I just never quite bought that.
The film was the most acclaimed Canadian film of 2012 – I put off watching it for far too long, unsure if the material was something I really wanted to tackle. I’m glad I saw the film – I think Nguyen is a talent to watch for in the future – but this time I cannot quite bring myself to add to the praise the film has received. It marks Nguyen as a talented filmmaker to watch – but for me, this time he never quite pulled off what he was aiming for.