Judge Michael Nazarewycz doesn't remember that Toto song having a verse about child soldiers.
"Respect your guns. They're your new mother and father."
I'm not a gun person. That's no political statement; guns simply don't interest me. I could say the same thing about soccer and peas. That being said, I have fired guns in my life (and played soccer and eaten peas, for the record). The last time I fired a gun was in my early teens, in the safe confines of a professional gun range. The young teens in War Witch probably don't care much for guns, either, but they have little choice about whether or not to use them. Nor do they have the luxury of taking out targets at some shooting range. Instead, their guns are trained on soldiers, and their setting is deep in the African jungle.
Facts of the Case
Komona (Rachel Mwanza in her screen debut) is a twelve-year-old girl living in squalor in sub-Saharan Africa. Her simple world is turned upside-down when guerilla soldiers—rebels against the government—raid her village and recruit (read: kidnap) all the children to serve in the resistance. The Commandant (Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Gangsterland) forces Komona to kill her parents with an assault rifle.
After being trained to fight, the rebel children face their first skirmish deep in the jungle. They're easy targets for better-trained and more experienced soldiers, but something happens. Komona has a vision of her parents as ghosts and just before the firing starts, they tell her to run. Run she does, saving herself, the Commandant, and a boy called Magicien (Serge Kanyinda in his first role). This seemingly precognitive ability earns Komona a promotion to be the personal War Witch to the ultimate leader of the resistance, Grand Tigre Royal (Mizinga Mwinga, White House Down).
Komona knows, though, that her days will be short-lived, as she was not the Tigre's first war witch and won't be his last. With the help of Magicien (who is smitten with the girl), she hopes to somehow find for herself a better life.
Writer/director Kim Nguyen (City of Shadows) makes a lot of smart decisions with this film, and each decision pays off just as well as the one before it.
The linear narrative of the film is told in flashback and narrated by Komona speaking to her unborn child. The voiceover is perfect in both presence and pitch; it is never excessive or intrusive, nor does it ever proselytize. It makes her character incredibly human and accessible. As the orphan/witch/soldier/mother-to-be, the success of the story rests on Komona's shoulders, and she is a character worthy of the responsibility. Hollywood might look to Canada, which produced this Oscar-nominated film, for tips on how to develop a strong female lead.
Within that narrative, which fits the traditional three-act structure, Nguyen "divides" the story into three parts by the simple act of showing three title cards. Each of these title cards represents Komona's age at the time of the story: twelve-, thirteen-, and fourteen-years-old. The breaks don't align with the acts, and that's perfectly fine, because life events don't always line up with age. What those breaks in this film serve to do is to remind us that this girl is just that—a girl—despite any of her actions and reactions that seem suited to someone who is two or three times her age, with the experience and wisdom to go with it. Every time Komona pulls the trigger, or faces a new challenge, it is easy to forget that she is a middle-schooler.
Now is a good time to commend Rachel Mwanza. I know all of the child phenom focus in 2012 was on Quvenzhanè Wallis and her performance in Beasts of the Southern Wild, but how Mwanza was not in the conversation is baffling to me. Her performance here is seamless. When you watch her in this film, you think you are watching the subject of a documentary, not a first-time actress in a foreign drama. Wallis never gave me that.
Another smart decision is the portrayal of the ghosts. Rather than use any CGI or VFX, the ghosts of the dead are simply the actors who played them while the characters were alive, but instead painted white from head to toe and with clear, blank eyes. It's chilling, and their introduction was a true startle moment for me.
The smartest decision, though, is the entire second act. I don't want to divulge too much, but it acts as both a refreshing, often humorous, break from the heavy drama of the first act, and it sets up the heavier third act remarkably well. If you aren't rooting for Komona after the first act, you will be her biggest cheerleader after the second.
By the end of the film, you want to adopt this girl. She is charming and sympathetic and smart—and fourteen years old!—and still so glowing despite her tribulations. You will find yourself mesmerized by her.
Both the video and the audio get the job done, but nothing more. The daytime scenes look good, but there are some dark scenes that would have done well with a better image. Still, no scene is difficult to watch. The audio is fine, too, and I really like the sound of the native music, which plays throughout the film.
There are two extras on the disc. The first, "Academy Promo," is a 5-minute interview with the director, who offers some insight into his filmmaking process, as well as why filming in the Congo presented unique challenges. "Story Behind the Scene" is another director interview—this one about 90 seconds—that talks, well, about a story behind one of the scenes.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
War Witch is a tough watch. While bloody at times, it's more the brutality of it that makes it a little more difficult to view than many war dramas. From the forced assassination of Komona's parents to a third-act decision she makes—and executes—that left my jaw ajar for a while, there are moments in this film that kick you in the chest and leave you catching your breath. This is in no way a criticism of the film or its makers, who do an excellent job; it's merely an observation of content and, quite honestly, a compliment.
War Witch is a powerful film and feels very much like a documentary, which is about the highest compliment I think I can pay to a fictional drama. No one in the film is a weak link, but it is clearly The Nguyen and Mwanza Show, and that alone is worth the price of admission.
She put a spell on me. Not guilty.
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