Before any political or societal context enters the brutal cinematic depictions seen in “Come and See” and “City of God,” each effort can first speak clearly enough from the image of a child holding a firearm. Gawky, nervous, and with an expression of terrified power, the isolated sight holds many questions to a decayed rationality and natural order, but as Canadian director Kim Nguyen‘s shows within his searing look at African child soldiers, “War Witch,” those two aspects are the first to be excised in warfare. Blending a surrealist perspective of battle-tinged faith with the harrowing tale of one girl’s resilience, the film is a laser-focused fable threatened occasionally by its drifts into character shorthand, but equaled by a wrenching lead performance by Rachel Mwanza that results in one of the finest of the year.
As clear and evocative a picture of Sub-Saharan Africa that Nguyen paints, the film (only the second to film in the Democratic Republic of Congo) also frames its intimate narrative around one who hasn’t yet glimpsed it. Told as a horrific bedtime tale of sorts from the young girl Komona (Mwanza) to her unborn child, her voice carries the hope that her words are indeed connected to a safer, reflective future. Swiftly kidnapped from her village by guerilla rebels, but not before being forced to murder her parents at gunpoint, Komona is then whisked away into the jungle, where another rifle — her new “mother and father” — is placed in her hands. Displaced, she only has her routine of menial tasks, sexual favors, and daily patrols with other kids noting the passage of time. When Komona is catapulted in status following a deadly skirmish which only she survives, afterwards being given the “war witch” title to bring good luck to the rest of their campaign, she falls in line with a similarly-ranked albino boy by the name of Magicien (Serge Kanyinda). However, as the two of them grow closer, he warns her of the short lifespan her position holds, and so following a quick escape from the guerilla forces without direction or food, they quickly realize the circular nature of such a war-torn life is bound to coil around.
The notion of cliché is altered in a narrative such as this; expectations of dodged conventions are superfluous when real-life events largely follow a similar loop of continued violence and exploitation. However, where Nguyen succeeds — although he does deliver this type of “standard” narrative — is in the film’s relationship to spirituality, and in turn faith’s unique position in worldwide warfare. Superstition and luck shroud the contents of every frame, with Komona and Magicien both representing tokens of safety to those who so clearly need it, and while Nguyen’s screenplay (which he wrote over the course of a decade) can feel overstuffed with symbolism in this regard, the heightened tone and cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc pulls it together wonderfully. The apex of this achievement comes when, following each deadly conflict, the murdered spirits of Komona’s family and fellow soldiers haunt her in physical form afterwards. As she witnesses these apparitions — eyes clouded and skin scraped over with cracked white paint — they contribute to the film’s most powerful scenes, meshing with the Nguyen’s sparse yet precise use of music to create a marked atmosphere of death and lingering memory.
Already once this year, we’ve seen with Benh Zeitlin‘s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” a miraculous performance by a young non-actor facing adverse situations, and with Mwanza, Nguyen simply has no choice but to look on as the Congolese actress commands the screen with her presence. Tasked with conveying both the ill-fitted comforts that family units provide as well as the chaotic struggle to leave such an controlling force, she handles each decision through the camera’s resting gaze upon her face with an incredibly affecting subtlety. Near the beginning, Komona whispers to her pregnant belly, “You will come out of my body,” and despite her continued account of increasingly dire events, from her towering optimism in performance does this statement sound like a proud exclamation rather than a warning. Kanyinda also, as the proud soldier turned suitor of Komona, turns in a compassionate performance, taking the plot’s somewhat eager push toward romance and grounding it in an ethnographic eye for detail, such as during his search for an incredibly rare white rooster to take Komona’s hand in marriage. Their relationship towards the second half of the film, which this devoted act sets off, brings a brief respite to the madness that made up the first, and allows both the couple and audience to glimpse a life divorced from war and violence, but one that neither of them are likely able to enjoy for long.
Assured in its disturbing material and conditioned around one of the finest screen performances this year, “War Witch” will also likely fall short to politically charged expectations. Aside from brief scenes involving the children watching Jean-Claude Van Damme films and living in tents covered with Obama-bred newspaper headlines, Nguyen’s hand thankfully deters the film’s message or worldview from imposing itself too emphatically. Even in moments where a shattering rhetoric could be established (a foray into an albino village simply gleans the disturbing surface), the focus always wisely remains on Komona’s confusion and unbelievable survival more than any reasons behind those events. For all of its necessary cruelty though, “War Witch” presents at times an almost guarded depiction of child soldier life, leaving signals to the untapped brutalities that normally befall children like Komona, and that hesitant suggestion remains perhaps the most vital yet tragic aspect to this stunning film. [A-]