A film about the horrors faced by child soldiers in the depths of the Congo could easily make for an incredibly depressing slice of soul-draining and morbid cinema. Yet in the hands of Canadian born director/writer Kim Nguyen, War Witch achieves a strong moral message encapsulated in a thunderous, poignant tale of one young girl's strength against unimaginable odds to find life after so much death.
War Witch has already received a great deal of critical attention having swooped the Silver Bear at this year's Berlin for Best Actress and recently being announced as the Canadian submission for Best Foreign Language Film for the 85th Academy Awards. Critical attention aside, the important thing about this moving drama is the accessible way the tale is presented.
Set in an unnamed location in Africa (more than likely the Congo) the harrowing opening sets the tone for the first half of the movie. Young teenager Komona (Silver Lion winner Rachel Mwanza) witnesses her village being raided by a band of soldiers who force her to kill her parents and join their ranks. After miraculously surviving a government attack after her forced conscription into the band of rebels, Komona earns a place as the rebel tribe's War Witch. Never adapting to a life of violence, Komona finds hope in an albino boy, Magicien. They escape together in the hope of finding a new life away from the murder and violence.
The power of this well structured and excellently written drama is undeniable, as the horrors of war (including rape, group executions and forced drug taking) are neatly balanced against the love story of Komona and Magicien. This is ultimately the success of the film. In the wrong hands the tale could have become a preachy morality tale on the horrors of war. Instead we’re presented with an accessible and lavishly shot tale of young love faced with the most horrific challenges imaginable.
There are moments of sweet charm. The young couple must seek out a white cockerel in order to get married, which allows for a much-needed moment of light relief. The performance from Mwanza is superb, as she captures the pain felt by the character, aided by her moving voiceover to the unborn child she carries and is recounting the story of her life to.
Yes, War Witch is made of the stuff that wins awards and critical praise, and it is artfully done. But this isn’t where the magic of the film lies. It lies in the humanity of the story amidst pain and suffering - poignant, powerful and incredibly moving, War Witch is a film that should soften, and likely melt, the hardest of hearts.
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