War Witch (2012)
85th Academy Awards 2013
Nominated for 1 award.
Nominated for Best Foreign Language Film (Canada, Kim Nguyen).
Watched April 21, 2014.
This year’s thought provoking war film comes from Canada, but they leave their polite compassion at the door in bringing War Witch to the screen.
Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is a young African girl whose small village is attacked by the rebel army. She is forced to kill her parents and then follow the rest of the kids she has grown up with into a war of the jungle. They are handed heavy assault rifles and drink “magic milk” (which is probably high in alcohol content, among other things) before going to fight. When Komona sees what she calls ghosts who communicate the hidden location of those they are fighting against, her leaders take notice and she is promoted to the status of War Witch. This is less of a privilege and more of a very precarious position–war witches don’t last long. Their job is to keep their group safe so that they win.
Back at camp, the girls are sexualized objects among the men. Knowing this, the Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), an albino who creates talismans, has fallen in love with the leader’s War Witch and after drinking the magic milk, he convinces her to run away with him and get married. She tells him what her father always said–that if he wants to marry her he has to bring her a white rooster, which according the film is incredibly rare and hard to find. They hide out at Magicien’s uncle’s house, and in perhaps an interesting twist, the uncle’s name is The Butcher (Ralph Prosper) and he is the kindest character in the film.
Not willing to lose his War Witch, the Grand Tigre Royal (Mizinga Mwinga) who leads the rebel army, comes after her. It is not long after that Komona finds herself pregnant and still haunted by ghosts–specifically the ghosts of her dead parents. In an attempt to finally put the ghosts to rest, Komona must do something drastic for both herself and her baby.
The film is not just about the reality behind child soldiers in Africa, but it is more deeply about family and loneliness. In a very powerful scene, Komona gives birth alone, at the side of a river, and rises above it. She shows strength beyond her fourteen years, but that is because the loss of her family and her circumstances have forced her to grow up too quickly. She shoulders more burdens than even the men who would claim her, and yet she still comes out on top. Her parents, as is evidenced very clearly, are always with her and she carries that guilt every day. She knows she could die any day, but she is not willing to stop fighting for herself and for her family.
Despite the content, the filming style is very still for most of the film. It shows Komona’s world in a very frank, matter of fact way. It becomes chaotic when they consume the magic milk, but otherwise we become accustomed to small people caring big guns and fighting for their lives. We get to see a glimpse into the horror of child soldiers kidnapped from their homes, but we also see the hope and the love that others are still willing to offer despite what human beings are capable of doing to one another.
War Witch was not my favorite film. It is surprisingly slow, despite having a phenomenal story. It is about Komona and her experiences and we see very little of what the other kids experience. In that way, the story was very narrow, but that is perhaps because so much happens to her that other side stories would become too heavy for the narrative. I got a little bored while watching it, but I found the ghosts property creepy, I bit my nails a lot, and was stunned when Komona gave birth to a healthy baby at the side of a river and then continued to paddle down stream like nothing had even happened. I can’t really place my finger on what I disliked. It was slow, and quiet, and perhaps too calm for what was happening.
It is an intense film, and for that reason I do not recommend it for everyone. If my review, or the trailer piques your interest, then by all means you should see the film.