You can tell how tough the competition was this year for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar by the fact that "War Witch" didn't take home the gold.
"Beasts of the Southern Wild" was one of the Best Picture nominees, and "War Witch" has a few things in common with that (slightly) more familiar film. Both star very young girls making their film debuts. Both have elements of magical realism that help their troubled protagonists survive. But the similarities pretty much end there. While the father in "Beasts" tried, in his way, to train his daughter to survive without him, the girl in "War Witch" is orphaned immediately -- and must learn not how to survive alone, but how to survive despite being surrounded by other, nastier people.
As the film opens, Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is playing on a makeshift see-saw in her village in sub-Saharan Africa. (The country is never named, but "War Witch" was filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Komona narrates in French.) She runs as she sees a group of rebels approach in a motorized canoe. She's captured, but instead of being murdered, she's handed an AK-47 and told to kill her parents.
|» Rating: 3.5 out of 4 stars|
|» Starring: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda, Mizinga Mwinga|
|» Director: Kim Nguyen|
|» Rated: Not rated|
|» Running time: 90 minutes|
She can't do it, at first. "If you don't kill them, I will -- with a machete," the rebel commander tells her, and then explains to the 12-year-old that means a much more painful death. Her father, his voice unfaltering, tells her, "Komona, do what he says." She does, tears streaming down her face. "You are now a rebel of Great Tiger," the commander says, giving her a half-hug. The girl has no time to reflect on what she's just been put through. She's put in the boat, along with a few other captures, and taken to a forest, where the kids are instructed in the ways of war.
We know that she survives this horror for at least two years, because it's a 14-year-old Komona who is telling us this story. Actually, she's telling the unborn child inside her. She wants that child to know what she did over the last two years. "Because when you come out, I don't know if God will give me the strength to love you."
Komona's life is unspeakably hard, but she finds two small consolations: a drug that gives her visions, including of her dead parents, and the friendship of another soldier, Magician (Serge Kanyinda). The visions save her life, and then threaten it. Somehow, the ghosts protect her from a government siege that kills everyone else in the area. The commander dubs her a "war witch," whom he jealously guards for his own protection. When Komona and Magician finally manage to make an escape, her "talent" means she'll be hunted until she's found -- and punished.
"War Witch" is a difficult film to watch, and that's exactly why it should be seen. Children are taken from their parents -- whom they're sometimes forced to kill -- and turned into killing machines when they're barely old enough to understand what is happening to them. That the teenage Rachel Mwanza can show us, and make us feel viscerally, a bit of what such a child goes through is a miracle in itself. She, herself, lived on the streets as a child after her parents abandoned her. "War Witch" has given her a new life. It would be another welcome miracle if the film brought awareness to other children's plights, and led to some of them being reborn.