We immediately recognize that something about WAR WITCH (which played at festivals and opened in certain countries as REBELLE) is both special and dangerous. Our narrator is a pregnant 14-year-old girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza) who is talking to her as-yet-unborn baby, and she's questioning whether she'll ever be able to love this child once it's born or whether she should simply let it die out in the middle of war-torn Sub-Saharan Africa, where the film takes place. Komona tells the child inside about her life for the previous two years, and it's as harrowing and terrifying tale as you are like to see.
At the age of 12, Komona was kidnapped from her village after being forced to execute her parents, thus beginning her young life as a child soldier for a band of rebels under the command of a man known as the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), a man who believes as much in magic to win his war as he does weapons and strategy. When it is discovered that Komona can see ghosts of the recently deceased (including her parents), and that these specters are giving her warnings about nearby government troop positions, she becomes a valuable asset to Great Tiger, who elevates her to the esteemed position of "War Witch."
Komona finds kindness and even love in a fellow young soldier named Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), who is also believed to have special powers, and the two eventually run off together to start a life without violence (they even go through a self-created marriage ceremony). But neither the past nor the Great Tiger give up that easily. I won't go into detail, but the child Komona speaks to was not fathered by her "husband."
Nominated this year for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (this is a French-language Canadian production), WAR WITCH may simply be too shocking and blunt for some viewers. The sight of these young children gunning down or hacking away at their enemies may be more than our sense of right and wrong can handle. But writer-director Kim Nguyen (CITY OF SHADOWS, TRUFFE) has built a difficult story about rebuilding one's soul after it has been savaged by outside forces. There is a section of the movie where Komona and Magicien live with his uncle (Ralph Prosper) in relative peace and serenity, and in those moments we see her true spirit, which makes what happens next all the more devastating.
Most of the film is told in flashback, but director Nguyen makes it feel more like a dreamlike vision (and occasionally a vivid nightmare) with sometimes hazy visuals and exaggerated reality. What is most fascinating are the ghosts that appear and sometimes speak to Komona. They are simply people covered head to tow in what looks like flour; there are no special effects are work here, which makes them no less eerie. And of course, this is what this young girl would think ghosts look like. Are they real? Does she truly have the gift of second sight? In the end, these questions don't matter because Komona is convinced they are real and capable of being both frightening and helpful.
As much as WAR WITCH is a film that incorporates the belief in magic, it is also a raw, unflinching look at a continuing situation throughout parts of Africa: the practice of turning children into ruthless killing machines. As much as audiences will likely enjoy the moments involving Komona escaping the rebels, it feels like fantasy, like something she imagined in her mind so as not to have to cope with the reality of her situation. Nguyen puts a face on this tragedy and brings out the reality of kids training to be vicious murderers and handed an AK-47 or a machete. After one particularly important victory, the rebels celebrate in an alcohol-fueled party complete with machine guns shot in the air and a nasty, threatening vibe in the air.
The final act of WAR WITCH primarily focuses on Komona's pregnancy and brutal birthing method. As bleak as the film is for much of its running time, it is also a work that is held together my brief but significant moments of hope and kindness. Our young heroine is driven to return to her village to properly honor her parents' death in order to set her damaged heart right and also to let their ghosts rest and stop haunting her. The film features a powerful and provocative story and several of the finest, most natural performances I've seen in quite a while by first-time actors, including young Mwanza, whose work earned her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival.