Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen started writing his brilliant War Witch about 10 years ago, but the movie's basic building blocks may seem familiar from recent times. War Witch explores the resilience of an indigenous people living under impossibly difficult circumstances; stars a young girl of African descent who narrates the film and delivers an indelible performance; puts magical realism at the center of a wildly original story; features nonprofessional actors in all the key roles; and manages to feel spontaneous despite a meticulously crafted script. If that description doesn't remind you of Beasts of the Southern Wild, you probably haven't seen Benh Zeitlin's film or read any of the press surrounding it.
But just as a single group of notes can be used to power either a symphony or a punk-rock anthem, War Witch actually has little of substance in common with Beasts beyond a child's perspective on the world. The story of Komona, a 12-year-old girl taken from her African village and forced to become a child soldier by rebel forces fighting a bloody civil war, War Witch comes out of the gate harshly realistic. Though a work of fiction, the unrated, French-language film is firmly grounded in the realities of sub-Saharan Africa, where children are routinely forced into military and sexual servitude. Shifts in the film's tone allow for depth and mystery far beyond its basic premise. Now in its initial theatrical run after winning multiple awards on the international film festival circuit last year — culminating in an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film — War Witch arrives locally as the best movie of the year so far, and by a significant margin.
War Witch's specific location and attendant politics are never mentioned, but the film was shot entirely on location in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc captures the lush beauty of the jungle, providing a poignant counterpoint to all the atrocities committed there. The same goes for Nguyen's carefully chosen soundtrack of joyous African music. The matter-of-fact way in which War Witch tells its story makes the film seem natural and real even when it allows Komona to find love with a fellow child soldier, or take solace in the kindness of an uncle who has suffered unimaginably from the war. Nguyen shared his poetic and understated screenplay with his cast only a few pages at a time. Though the story takes place over a couple of years, events seem to unfold in real time as Nguyen and his cast maintain a profound connection to the present wherever the film takes us.
Nguyen found his young star Rachel Mwanza living on her own on the streets of Kinshasa, the Congo's largest city. Though not an actual child soldier, Mwanza's life experience obviously informs her heartbreaking and utterly believable performance. Her unique presence blocks any chance that the movie will come off as an outsider's take on Third World horrors. And it allows War Witch to end on a spare note of hope despite all that has come before. — KEN KORMAN