The Oscars often lure folks across the seas from faraway worlds to the red carpet celebration, from Palestinian Emad Burnat ("5 Broken Cameras"), who was detained at LAX on his way to the Academy Awards show, to 16-year-old Rachel Mwanza, who gives a beautiful, devastating performance in Oscar-nominated foreign entry "War Witch." She has been granted a visa to travel from the Congo to the US in order to attend both the Oscars and the Independent Spirit Awards.
"War Witch" centers on pre-teen Komona (Mwanza) who is abducted by the local rebel army. When the army leaders realize that Komona can see ghosts of fallen soldiers, warning her of when and where the enemy will strike, she is exalted to War Witch status within the ranks. The film is a tale of escape and survival, but also a relatable story of adolescent first love.
Congolese Mwanza was discovered on the streets of Kinshasa by director Kim Nguyen; she was abandoned by her parents at an early age and had been eking out a living since then. It's been an incredible journey for the rookie actress, as she received the Berlin Silver Bear for her performance when the film premiered at the 2012 Berlinale.
When I interviewed Nguyen about the film, he expressed some concerns about the roller-coaster trajectory of the film for Mwanza, who is still in reinsertion programs to learn to read and write: "It’s still too soon for her to be able to read scripts, and to understand depth of character as she reads a script. The Oscars are amazing, and I think it’s going to be an amazing experience for her, but I think it’s still too soon for her to be getting offers from Hollywood."
The star-studded glitz and glam of the Oscars will be a lot to register. Nguyen told me that when Mwanza received the Silver Bear, she didn't recognize the award's handsome presenter — Jake Gyllenhaal.
Our TOH! review of "War Witch" is here.