I am of two minds when it comes to cinematic depictions of the African continent, in both fiction and documentary films. On the one hand, the sad reality is that civil war, corruption, political instability, and famine are inescapable features of many African countries, due to the legacy of European colonialism and the subsequent failings of indigenous leaders. On the other hand, focusing on such subjects leads to a narrow and skewed view of a continent with rich history and culture, especially considering the fact that many films about Africa are made by non-Africans. However sympathetic and respectful these outsiders to the cultures may be, there often remains an inescapable aspect of voyeuristic tourism, aimed more at appealing to Westerners than to African people themselves.
At first blush Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen's fourth feature War Witch would seem to conform to the usual trends. Shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but not the specific setting of the film, which is rendered as an unnamed sub-Saharan African country, War Witch deals with the phenomenon of child soldiers, a subject that has been explored in numerous films and TV reports. The usual issues of the loss of innocence and war trauma are dealt with here as well, so there is certainly nothing ground-breaking or particularly novel in what Nguyen offers us, at least as far as subject matter goes. What elevates this film above many others, however, is the fable-like atmosphere that informs both the performances and the visual aesthetic. Also taking the film to a uniquely memorable place is the stunning standout performance by the young actress Rachel Mwanza, a nonprofessional found by Nguyen on the streets of the Congo capital of Kinshasa, who went on to win the best actress award at this year's Berlin Film Festival. Mwanza ably carries War Witch almost entirely on her soldiers, never less than convincing at every turn.
War Witch is built around the conceit of Komona (Mwanza), narrating her story to her unborn child, one product of the war that is waged around her, and of which she has been forced to become an active participant. Twelve years old as the story begins, Komona is taken away from her village by invading rebel soldiers and drafted into the rebels' child army, but not before being compelled to do the first killing that will haunt her throughout the rest of the film. We are taken through the roughly three years following her abduction constituting her war experiences. Komona's own parents have been replaced by her rifle; the rebel soldiers tell her and the other children that "this is your mother and father" during their training. Komona's sadness and fear begin to be alleviated by Magician (Serge Kanyinda), an albino fellow child soldier who takes it upon himself to befriend and protect her.
During a battle with government soldiers, in which Komona is one of the few survivors, the rebels believe she has magic powers that can predict when they will be attacked and protect them from government bullets, and designate her as a "war witch," and to eventually become the personal property of the rebel leader Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). Magician sticks by Komona's side through all of this, and they eventually make their escape from the rebel army to live with Magician's uncle the Butcher (Ralph Prosper). Rachel and Magician are able to lead a somewhat normal existence, which includes a humorous episode in which Rachel sends him on a quest to track down a rare white rooster before she will allow him to marry her. However, the civil war proves inescapable, and they are both drawn back into its murderous embrace.
War Witch has a dreamy, fairy-tale quality that meshes surprisingly well with the more violent aspects of this tale, and Kim Nguyen ably mixes the fantastical elements of his story with a documentary-like aesthetic to create a richly textured work. The entire cast, a mix of non-professional Congolese actors and professional Canadian actors offer impressive support to the revelatory central performance by Rachel Mwanza, especially Kanyinda as Magician.
War Witch screens April 23, 9:30pm at Clearview Cinemas Chelsea and April 24, 1pm at AMC Loews Village 7. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit the Tribeca Film Festival website.
Update, 4/26: War Witch has won the Founders Award for Best Narrative Feature at Tribeca, as well as the award for Best Actress in a Narrative Feature for Rachel Mwanza. War Witch screens again on April 29 at 3pm and 6pm. Click here to purchase tickets.