Also known as Rebelle in Canada, War Witch is an Academy Award nominated and multiple award-winning indie that captures the cruel, devastatingly complex life of a young girl forced to become a child warrior within an unidentified war-torn region of Central Africa.
A decade ago Canadian director Kim Nguyen became inspired by a story he heard about Burmese twin brothers; leaders of the God’s Army guerillas, Luther and Johnny Htoo. It was rumored that the 10-year-old chain-smoking warlords had supernatural powers.
Nguyen explained to the DailyBeast, “I started reading up on the Burmese story, but then it led me to stories about Angola and Sierra Leone… I realized that 50 percent of child soldiers are girls, not just boys. You see this censorship of not seeing girls as soldiers, and only seeing images of boy soldiers. I wanted to give a voice to it.”
The result is War Witch, starring young Congolese actress, Rachel Mwanza, Alain Bastien, Serge Kayinda and Mizinga Mwinga. It’s harrowing, to say the least, as the films intro shows 12-year old Komona (Mwanza) placed between the rock and hard place of becoming a child soldier – only after having to choose how her parents were to be disposed of: By shooting them herself or watch them be hacked to death by her war-mongering kidnappers. Eerily, the story is narrated by Komona who tells the heart-wrenching story of her life as a child soldier to the baby growing inside her, a product of rape by her vile leader who goes by the moniker, “Great Tiger”.
Although the cause of the civil war remains as vague as a child’s comprehension of such a horrific existence, the film hints that coltan – a black metallic ore largely found in Congo used in cell phones – is the driving force. With regrettable honesty, War Witch portrays children in battle, under the influence of fear and a drug designed to help them carry out unspeakable brutality.
Ironically, a story of love, innocence, resilience and mysticism are interwoven into this harsh tale. The heroine, Komona, gains her title due to her visions of ghosts, including that of her parents, warning her of impending danger while on the battlefield. It’s this ‘otherworldly armor’ that causes Great Tiger to become possessive of young Komona, his “war witch.” Fleetingly, she escapes the captive army with Magician, an albino boy she’s fallen in love with. But their joy comes to a sudden end when Great Tiger sends out young troops to reclaim her.
Much of the message of hope and resilience stems from the natural rawness brought forth by lead actress Rachel Mwanza, who was abandoned by her parents as a child and lived on the streets of Kinshasa for a time. The authenticity of the film was borne out of Nguyen’s decision to scrap his original script and rely on improvisation and guiding the actors through each scene. Ultimately, outcome is an original, riveting film that celebrates the strength and awe of the human spirit.
Nguyen’s highly acclaimed War Witch now available on DVD and Amazon Instant Video.