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Interview: Canadian Director Kim Nguyen Talks Foreign Oscar Nominee ‘War Witch’

Interview: Canadian Director Kim Nguyen Talks Foreign Oscar Nominee 'War Witch'

French-Canadian director Kim Nguyen’s coming-of-age drama “War Witch” was one of the five nominees for the 2013 Foreign-Language Oscar. The film tells the harrowing yet poignant story of a young African girl abducted into a rebel army, and her brave journey to free herself from the army’s clutches. (Here’s the iTunes trailer.)

Nguyen’s fourth feature, the film first appeared at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, and 15-year-old lead actress Rachel Mwanza won the Silver Bear for her performance. It has since been nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, and won a National Board of Review prize as one of 2012’s Top Five Foreign-Language Films.

Beth Hanna: This is the second narrative film ever to be shot in Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What about the area appealed to you?

Kim Nguyen: We went to Cameroon, and we went to Kenya.  Kenya was intense and it was beautiful, and yet it was too clean in a way. It didn’t represent these war areas that we were looking for, but it would have been much more comfortable to film in. When I saw Kinshasa, for example, we arrived at the airport, and I saw this policeman. He had an AK-47 strapped to his shoulder, and he was waving something around, it looked like an airport light to guide the airplanes. But when I got closer, I realized it was a Fisher Price Luke Skywalker light saber that he was using to direct traffic. These are the idiosyncrasies that you can’t plan. In a way, you’re looking for places that force you to re-write your story as you’re making the film, and Kinshasa was that. It nourished the film tremendously.

The lead of the film, Rachel Mwanza, is a Kinshasa local, right?

Rachel was born in Kinshasa and she was abandoned at the age of five or six by her parents. And she’d been in the streets until we auditioned her two years ago. She was in a documentary previously, and that helped us to find her.

Mwanza won the Silver Bear in Berlin for her performance, and now the film is nominated for an Oscar. What’s that journey been like for her?

In a way, one kind of wishes the Oscars could happen three years after the Berlin [Silver Bear win]. Rachel didn’t learn how to read, and she didn’t learn how to write. We realized, watching Rachel [during filming], the importance of being structured, and having parents. It’s not just the actual course, it’s the idea of organizing your life and having a time for eating, for sleeping, for studying and learning to concentrate for hours at a time. All of that took much more time than we anticipated. She’s in a reinsertion program that we custom-built for her, and we’re realizing that 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 reading scripts and getting offers from Hollywood.

What drew you to the story of a girl abducted into a rebel army?

Very quickly, as I started doing the research, I realized the importance of telling a story about this girl and giving a voice to people who hadn’t been given a voice before. At least in Canada or in the United States, the movies I saw that were addressing Africa — I don’t know if it’s because of the pressures of the industry to have a white A-listed character, or something like that — but the savior always ended up being symbolic of North America, that white guy going into Sub-Saharan Africa and saving everything. So I thought that we had to give a voice to the real heroes of these tragedies, which was in this case a girl who’s abducted by rebels and tries to find a way to create a new life for herself.

I love the simple design concept of the ghosts in the film – white body paint and frosted contact lenses. No CG.

There are elements in a film that you hope are going to pull through. The ghosts really scared me because I was scared they were going to be pretentious or B-movie-like. At first we did have the reflex of making them half-transparent or giving them a glow or whatever. But I was having nightmares about people laughing at the CG. And doing visual research, we quickly saw that there’s this universal approach to representing ghosts in many cultures, from India to Africa, which is to put ashes or clay on bodies. So we decided to make it very naïve in that sense. In the way that the girl’s reality is naïvely told through her own eyes, the ghosts are also very naïve.

The music in the film is great — where did you find it?

In my previous films I had used too much music, and sometimes you just have to impose dogmas on yourself. You watch the edit over and over, and eventually, regardless of the film you’re doing, you start thinking it’s getting boring. So you add a little more music and then you add a little more music, and then everybody comments on the film, and you add a little more music. The one rule I told myself, once we liked the edit on [“War Witch”], was to take out 30 to 50% of the music. Literally, mathematically.

I discovered this Angolese music, it’s taken from the ‘70s. Afro-beat music that was just the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. And all of the songs in the film come from this Angolese album of old tracks that I love.

“War Witch” hits theaters in limited release via Tribeca Film on March 1 (New York) and March 8 (Los Angeles). Our TOH! review of the film is here.

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