Breathtaking Oscar-Nominee ‘War Witch’ Honors Youthful Resilience

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Average: 2 (4 votes) Oscarman rating: 5.0/5.0
Rating: 5.0/5.0

CHICAGO – If last year’s group of Best Picture nominees are any indication, American filmmakers seem convinced that in order for their work to be taken seriously, it has to be super-long. I understand why a picture like “Lincoln” would have an epic scope, but did disposable novelties like “Django Unchained” and “The Hobbit: Vol. 1” really have to clock in around three hours?

With a running time of exactly 90 minutes (including credits), Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” has triple the impact of films twice its length. It was one of four nominees in the Best Foreign Film category doomed to be overshadowed by “Amour,” the only film most moviegoers actually had the chance to see in 2012. Now that Nguyen’s film has finally opened in the U.S., it will easily rank alongside the very best films of 2013. It’s a masterpiece.

Shot entirely within the Democratic Republic of the Congo, “War Witch” centers on three years in the life of a young girl in sub-Sahara Africa, played with astonishing assurance by Rachel Mwanza, a girl that Nguyen happened to find on the streets of Kinshasa (she’s gone on to win Best Actress accolades at the Berlin and Tribeca festivals). Her character, Komona, was loosely inspired by Johnny and Luther Htoo, twin brothers who led the late ’90’s guerilla group known as God’s Army in Burma. They were merely ten years of age when they acquired their positions of leadership, but it was rumored that the pint-sized warriors possessed magical powers, such as an imperviousness to bullets, that made them an indomitable force on the battlefield. It was this particular story that captivated Nguyen, inspiring him to craft a tale about a young African girl kidnapped by rebel soldiers who gains notoriety as an alleged sorceress. There’s definitely a spiritual texture to Nguyen’s film, as he allows fragments of Komona’s restless imagination to drift into the stark reality of various scenes. The souls of each person she kills materialize as spirits covered in white powder, and among the ghostly faces are those of her parents. Because early on in Nguyen’s film, 12-year-old Komona is forced by the rebels to shoot her mother and father, who encourage her to follow orders, if only to spare her own life. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc captures this appalling scene in one gut-wrenching take, sparing us of the bloodshed but none of the brutality.

Rachel Mwanza as Komona in War Witch, distributed by Tribeca Film.
Rachel Mwanza as Komona in War Witch, distributed by Tribeca Film.
Photo credit: Item 7

Some pictures may not have been able to recover from such a galvanizing sequence, but Nguyen’s film is startlingly tender in its portrayal of Komona’s nightmarishly surreal coming-of-age journey. In order to keep his actors entirely within the moment of each scene, the writer/director prevented them from reading the script in its entirety. Following the philosophy of this technique, editor Richard Comeau brings each sequence a distinctive self-contained quality that make the preceding scenes seem as if they were fragments of a dream. This is a smart choice, since Komona must somehow manage to maintain her sanity while spiraling between the grueling violence of her enslavement and the serenity of her hard-fought freedom. There are moments in which the world itself practically freezes around Komona, as she prays for each fleeting glimmer of happiness to last an eternity. One such moment occurs on a motorcycle, as she shares an embrace with her 15-year-old husband, “Magician” (wonderfully played by Serge Kanyinda). They ran away from the rebels together and lived for a time with the boy’s uncle (Ralph Prosper), a butcher disgusted by his work because it reminds him of the grisly fate suffered by his slaughtered family members. These scenes offer a cathartic release from Komona’s bleak entrapment, but they are tinged with the ever-present dread of impermanence.

Walking into “War Witch,” I assumed that the film would be about the systematic brainwashing of a helpless youth at the hands of her captors, but that is not the case at all. Nguyen’s film is ultimately a triumphant ode to the resilience of its young heroine, who somehow succeeds in maintaining her humanity even in the most inhumane of conditions. The 12 years she spent with her family gave her enough of a sturdy foundation to draw from in the midst of the chaos. The ghosts that follow her are an embodiment the remorse that she feels in the aftermath of her assigned killing sprees. She does what she has to do in order to survive, but her spirit still manages to remain intact. The title of “witch” that she receives from rebel leaders could just be the result of her luck in remaining alive, yet perhaps Komona’s spiritual perception enables her to see what others can’t. That doesn’t make her a witch. It makes her alive in ways that her zombified peers couldn’t possibly achieve.

Rachel Mwanza as Komona and Serge Kanyinda as Magician in War Witch, distributed by Tribeca Film.
Rachel Mwanza as Komona and Serge Kanyinda as Magician in War Witch, distributed by Tribeca Film.
Photo credit: Item 7

Is “War Witch” a difficult film to watch? At times, absolutely. Is it worth the trip? Without question. There also is not a frame of wasted screen time, which is something that can’t be said for “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Les Misérables,” “Life of Pi” or even “Silver Linings Playbook.” Since when did a picture’s running time have any bearing on its power to provoke or absorb? Nguyen is a master storyteller, and he makes every second of this picture count, right up until the very last shot. As horrifying as Komona’s struggle might be, her ability to overcome it is resoundingly hopeful. Sometimes all it takes is one awakening to start a revolution.

‘War Witch’ stars Rachel Mwanza, Alain Bastien, Serge Kanyianda, Ralph Prosper and Mizinga Mwinga. It was written and directed by Kim Nguyen. It opened at the Music Box Theatre on March 22nd, 2013. It is not rated. staff writer Matt Fagerholm

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