‘War Witch’ Is a Psychedelic Masterpiece About Child Soldiers
One of the best war films set in Africa
by MATTHEW GAULT
The men pull their boats onto a riverbank, brandish AK-47s and round up the children. The kids stand in lines along the shore, staring at the water — each waiting their turn.
Komona is first. The armed men pull her out of line and lead her to a hut where her parents huddle on their knees.
“Kill them,” the soldier says. He hands her a rifle and she hesitates. “If you don’t kill them, I will … with a machete,” the soldier explains. “They will suffer a lot.”
Her father tells her to do what the man commands.
Komona — a 12-year-old girl — raises the rifle and pulls the trigger. Tears run down her face. The soldier places his hand on the back of her neck and strokes her ear.
“You are now a rebel of Great Tiger,” he explains. But Komona is more than that.
War Witch is a 2012 movie from French Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen. It’s Komona’s story of survival in the face of terrifying circumstances — forced to fight a war she doesn’t understand and doesn’t care to understand.
The film is haunting, heartbreaking and surreal. I can’t believe I’d never heard of it until a few weeks ago when it popped up on my Netflix page. There’s something honest and matter-of-fact about the film.
It has a quality of authenticity — despite its strange imagery — that audiences rarely see in movies about war, Africa … or both.
Once the children of Komona’s village finish murdering their parents, the rebels pull them deep into the jungle.
A shaman chants and casts spells. He extracts a creamy sap from the trees and feeds it to the new warriors.
He calls it “magic milk,” as the white substance dilates their pupils, dulls their pain and expands their minds. The rebels keep the kids doped up to calm their terror during battle with government soldiers.
But Komona’s reaction is different. During their first firefight, she sees her parents’ ghosts in the brush. A white, ashy paint covers their bodies. They kneel — like they did before their deaths.
“Run,” her father yells.
Komona flees just as the government troops ambush the child soldiers, killing everyone but Komona and those who followed her. It happens again … and again. Soon the rebels realize the young woman’s power.
She’s more than just a child soldier. She’s a war witch, prized by Great Tiger and his troops for her ability to sense danger before it happens.
Then she falls in love with another child soldier — the enigmatic albino named Magician. But they can’t be together while fighting an armed rebellion. They can’t raise a family among the magic milk addicts.
Hollywood has made a lot of terrible movies set in Africa. Well-meaning schlock fests such as Beyond Borders and Blood Diamond litter the dollar DVD bin at Walmart.
Those movies portray Africa as an awful, post-apocalyptic wasteland that needs the West to save it. But Africa is a huge and diverse continent, and Hollywood’s films — more often than not — come across as condescending.
Not so with War Witch. Writer-director Nguyen took pains to make his film heartbreaking and interesting without also patronizing its subjects.
The film takes place somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa but never specifies its precise setting. Nguyen filmed most of the movie in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Most of the actors are native Congolese.
Rachel Mwanza plays Komona. The young woman gives the character a quiet dignity and power I’ve rarely seen from a character in any movie from any country.
Mwanza was completely illiterate when Nguyen cast her. She could neither read nor write, and began learning French on the set of War Witch.
That’s impressive considering Komona’s narration drives the movie’s plot. She memorized her lines the old fashioned way — by listening to someone else repeat them over and over until she was ready.
“You will come out of my belly one day,” she says early on. Most of the film’s dialogue is Komona talking to her unborn child.
“I have to tell you how I became a soldier with the rebels,” she continues. “Listen good when I talk to you.”
“Because it’s important that you know what I did before you come out of my belly. Because when you come out. I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you.”
The Congolese actors and shooting locations go a long way toward making War Witch feel different than other films set in Africa. But it’s more than that. This movie sidesteps a lot of the cliches that blemish other stories involving the continent.
No Western foreign aid worker or photojournalist stalks the jungles explaining how the audience should feel. The story makes no political statements and doesn’t teach any lessons beyond the ones arising from Komona’s personal story.
The war, the fighting, the death — they’re are all matter-of-fact. To Komona and the rest of the characters, this is just the way life is.
It’s sometimes tragic and violent, yes, but it’s also full of magic, wonder and love.
War Witch snagged an Oscar nomination for best foreign language feature back in 2012, but lost to Amour. Don’t let this film fall into obscurity. Check it out on Netflix or on-demand services such as Amazon.