Though at this year’s Academy Awards foreign language favourite (and ultimate winner) Amour overshadowed many of the other contenders, the slate proved to be both accessible and ultimately strong, not to mention thoroughly distinctive. Canada’s official entry, War Witch, (interestingly from a Vietnamese/Quebecois director named Kim Nguyen and set in Africa) like the others, never had much of a chance to take home the prize, but still proves to be a unique if sometimes ideologically flawed film.
Ultimately it’s the whimsical and ethereal elements of Nguyen’s effort that stand as the distinguishing features (which set it aside from other movies chronicling war torn Africa) but also as the problematic aspects, which threaten to offensively dim the grim nature of these horrific, still-raging conflicts.
Beginning at an unimposing, poverty-stricken African village, a 12 year old girl named Komona (newcomer Rachel Mwanza) is soon to learn the realities of her country. Forced to kill her parents by rebels, lead by the legendary insurgent Great Tiger, and then forced into military service, her innocence had all but been stripped clean. However, after standing as the lone survivor of an ambush (and inexplicably sensing it moments before) Great Tiger decides she must be a witch and places her at his side to advise on his military movements. While under his watch she falls for an albino soldier (the equally unknown actor Serge Kanyinda) and a romance blossoms, which sets off a new chapter in her life.
The narrative as a whole unravels as Komona speaks to her unborn child as to the horrors she had witnessed, looking to purge her demons before the baby entered her arms. It’s a rather straightforward approach in which to frame the tale and one that serves the story well. Less so are the drug-induced hallucinations she experiences, the appearance of ghosts, talk of magic and side plots ranging from the search for an illusive white rooster and the journey to an albino commune.
The jumps from watching a young girl gun down others, to having the spirits of her parent’s plea for a proper burial fail to mesh and serve to undermine the real horrors of the situation. The Africa of War Witch feels somewhat like a pseudo fantasy world, but at the same time never enough of one. Similar to how Forrest Gump treated the Vietnam War – an airy trifle or mere step in a greater journey – War Witch fails to deliver much lasting impact, nor does it have much to say on the situation in a broader context. The heavy subject matter is present as are the instances of light that can be found in the darkness, but they never combine to create a greater whole.
Upon the first instances of this type of whimsy, I immediately pulled myself back to the mind frame that these instances were simply interpretations through the eyes of a child – one attempting to cope with horror with organic, unintentional innocence. But coupled with the first-person voiceover speaking vividly to these occurrences and how many of those scenes were framed, it’s impossible to fully retain that angle.
All that being said, Nguyen’s passionate ten-year quest to make this film shows, and his vision, for better or worse, seems to remain intact. Likewise, War Witch is stunning to look at and provides slivers of the African culture that are wholly distinct from what you’re bound to see in a typical film utilizing the setting. The performances from Mwanza and Serge are moving and natural and carry few of the flaws usually associated with first-time actors. War Witch is a strong film in that regard.
Certainly not for everyone for a number of reasons, ranging from the brutal violence to the qualms I raised, Nguyen’s film is certainly not quite like any film I’ve seen before. 2012 was a bullish year for superior cinema and it’s great to see that recognition for the talent behind such fare has reached small films like War Witch.