Movies like “War Witch,” which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Film, have a specific stigma in theirway. Most audiences don’t want to watch 90 minutes of a young girl forced into becoming a child soldier by rebels in Africa, a continent where between 100,000 to 200,000 children are forced into military service.
To do justice to this kind of trauma, a film has to capture the experience of child soldiers, and to derive easy viewing pleasure from this kind of material is not only misguided, but borderline irresponsible. “War Witch” is not an easy watch, but the film is much more than a realistic look at a tragedy in the developing world. It is an unsparing yet humane look at a loss of innocence in a harsh, unforgiving world where tradition and modernity collide in unstable ways.
After her village in the Congo is massacred and she is forced to kill her own parents, 12-year-old Komona must join a group of rebels led by Great Tiger. When she becomes the only taken child who survives, the superstitious fighters anoint her as shaman to their leader. And thus, she becomes a “war witch” who can predict the future and track their enemy.
It is never made clear whether Komona’s ghostly visions — startlingly rendered as people coated in dusty white paint — are real or caused by hallucinogens, nor is it necessary to her young mind, as the real and unreal intermix the nightmare of her captivity. The magic realism can hold its own next to “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” And, like that film, the use of shaky-cam here actually works in “War Witch” as well. But “War Witch” does not have the wonder in “Beasts.” Instead, the film oozes understated, dawning dread.
Rachel Mwanza, the young actress who plays Komona, grew up as an orphan in the tormented land of the Congo and was spotted in the documentary “Kinshasa Kids” by director Kim Nguyen. This is the kind of film that depends on a strong lead to work, and Mwanza has the exact emotional honesty that cannot be taught to an actor.
Komona eventually meets a boy named Magician, and the two set off on a two-year odyssey that makes up the second half of the film. Their budding relationship is the one thing that lets the movie ease up on the tension. As we gradually begin to care for their growing happiness, their trek seems like part of another movie — until the release is cruelly and wrenchingly yanked away.
The final journey, one that will put the oldest ghosts to rest, has the purity of an ancient myth, and it is a true heroine’s journey. The release is hard-won, thankfully free of sentimentality and even a little inspiring. “War Witch” is a harrowing journey into a heart of darkness, but it’s also a subtle map towards some kind of transcendence.
J.R. Hammerer is a staff writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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