War Witch (“Rebelle”) is a riveting French film about the life of child soldier Komona, in an unspecified country in Africa. Written and directed by Kim Nguyen, the film was nominated by the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film, as well as Best International Film by the Film Independent Spirit Awards. It opens today in L.A. at the Laemmle Royal Theater.
The story is terrifying, but it is told in such a fast-paced, matter-of-fact way, the viewer is swept along with Komona – played by the magnificent Rachel Mwanda – as if there’s no time to grieve. Kidnapped from her village at age 12 by the army of a rebel named The Great Tiger, the commander forces her to do the unthinkable in order to leave no ties behind. Then she and the other village children are marched to the rebels’ camp, all the while beaten into submission and forced to learn that the doled-out AK-47’s are their “new mothers and fathers”.
There is a kind of tree sap they’re given to drink that intoxicates them and builds a surreal shell around their predicament. It makes absolutely insane scenes of children firing guns seem like a hallucination. But in these battles, Komona seems to be protected by visions of ghosts – first of her parents and then of the soldiers as they die. The ghosts are startling because they’re portrayed with no special effects but by people painted all white. It’s very creepy, even if it takes you a moment to figure out what they are. It’s not entirely clear why, but her luck in these battles causes the superstitious rebels to declare her a witch – Great Tiger’s witch. This gives her some protection from the cruel commander and a small amount of freedom.
Two years flash by, and Komona finds unexpected friendship and love in an albino soldier called the Magician (at left), named for his Voodoo knowledge. He is played by Serge Kanyinda, who is excellent. I wish there was a better photo of him because he’s a handsome kid. The Magician warns Komona that the Great Tiger’s previous witches didn’t last long, and convinces her to escape with him. In the fast cut style of the movie, it isn’t really explained how they manage it; we just see them at a river and paddling away in a boat.
The two of them are so old for their age, because of all they’ve been through, and yet so innocent and childlike (which is apparent even in Komona’s pose in the poster), but the actors balance these two sides amazingly well. The real heart of the movie is their brief time together, traveling from village to village, trying to restore their lives. The contrast between Komona’s rebel camp attire and feminine village clothes is striking. My favorite scenes are of the Magician’s attempts to find a white rooster, which is a common village requirement before a man can marry a girl (because white roosters are so rare).
Disaster strikes soon however, and you want to just cry. But there’s no time – there’s another jump in years, and we find Komona enduring some of her most difficult trials yet. This portion of the film is noticeably more graphic and certain scenes surprised me by their frankness. I think it’s to show that the childlike wonder and innocence are gone. We’re still thankfully spared some things that we know only from her voiceover. But here Komona moves from a downtrodden zombie of sorts, to a woman of action, both tormented and spurred on by the ghost visions.
War Witch is an awesome reminder of what the human spirit can endure – a reminder of the terror that occurs outside the safe bubble that most of us are fortunate to live in. But it also ends with a strong sense of hope. It’s the kind of film that lingers in your head for days, and I highly recommend it.
Images courtesy of Tribeca Films