“War Witch,” Canada’s Oscar-nominated Foreign-Language entry, centers on a young African girl’s abduction into a rebel army, her escape, and the slow, painful process of liberating herself from the army’s traumatic, devastating reach. It is directed by French-Canadian Kim Nguyen, and is the second feature film in history to be shot in Kinshasa of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Rachel Mwanza won the Berlin Silver Bear for her role as Komona. When we first meet her, she is 12 years old. Komona narrates in voiceover to her unborn baby, telling how she was forced to kill her parents, and was then unceremoniously kidnapped into training to be a child soldier for the DRC’s rebel army. Upon her first fighting mission in the jungle, she sees the ghosts of her dead parents (brilliantly, simply costumed with white body paint and frosted contacts), who warn her of enemy soldiers ahead. This incident, which leaves many of her fellow rebels dead but which Komona survives, gives her the reputation of being a “war witch” who can foretell the future and help with military strategy. She becomes the pet of the rebels’ malevolent leader, Great Tiger.
As Komona’s story continues, she befriends an albino teenage boy called Magicien (a very good Serge Kanyinda). Magicien warns Komona that Great Tiger will eventually kill her — as he had his last three war witches — when she incorrectly predicts the outcome of a battle. Together the two escape in a canoe and begin a new life, tracking down Magicien’s uncle The Butcher, a man far less ominous than his title suggests. He is an honest, hardworking man who prepares animal meat for a living, with a bucket on the floor beside him in case he becomes nauseous. When he slaughters meat, he is reminded of the grizzly fates of most of his family.
I won’t give away the rest of the story, but Komona and Magicien fall in love and, as we know from her voiceover, she eventually becomes pregnant. This extended middle sequence is deceptively simple, but important for the tonal dynamic of the film. Komona tells Magicien that in order for them to marry, he must find and capture a white rooster, a feat more difficult than Magicien bargains for. As he searches for the fowl, often hilariously, with village people laughing at him, telling him it can’t be done, and finally producing a bird he must chase in a giddy showdown, we realize, for these brief few scenes, how funny and delightful the film has become. It marks a beautiful contrast to the dire, violent first act, and the tough, harrowing last act. It also puts us in the position of Komona and Magicien — treasuring peace and happiness when it comes, conscious that it may not last.
The music and sound design in “War Witch” is remarkable. The showstopper sequence happens early in the film, when Komona first sees her parents’ ghosts before battle. After the gunfire, men and boys lie dead on the ground, now painted white. As the mellow strains of African folk music kick in, the rebel soldiers’ ghosts rise and walk somnambulistically through the forest, climbing trees. Later in the film, when Komona is free, she absentmindedly swings a heavy metal gate at the Butcher’s home. The reverberating, creaking sounds of the gate hold over into the next scene, transforming into an unsettling soundtrack as Komona suffers violent nightmares. She’s liberated from the rebels, but she’s also in a prison of traumatic memory. The everyday intrudes into dreams.
Mwanza, an acting newcomer discovered on the streets of Kinshasa, guides the film naturally. She has very few lines of dialogue, and much of Nicolas Bolduc’s observant cinematography focuses on the emotions subtly registered on her face. Because many of Komona’s most harrowing experiences occur when she would be at mortal risk to protest, Mwanza faces the difficult task — and rises to the challenge — of at once showing feelings and smothering them. It reminds us that strong performances are often powerful because of what is held back, and that strong characters (the stuff of great movies, really) are often fascinating because of their refusal to break.