War Witch (Review)

Last week I reviewed Two Lovers and a Bear, Kim Nguyen’s 2016 drama film based on a friend’s recommendation. Though the film was not without its missteps, it was still pleasantly surprising, its emotional drama lingering in my mind days after, largely due to its complex themes and the masterful character work by Nguyen. But this work is a very different dramatic piece from Nguyen’s 2012 Academy Award-nominated film War Witch, which masterfully deals with real problems of much broader proportions, as opposed to to the isolated struggles of two damaged lovers and a talking polar bear.

Taking place in an unnamed war-torn poverty-stricken African country, the film tells the story of the life of a child soldier from the perspective from a young girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza). When she is twelve Komona’s village is raided by rebels, who mercilessly force her to gun down her own parents before then joining their war against government forces. At one point, Komona survives an ambush, which leads the rebel commander to believe that she is a war witch; a supernaturally gifted individual who can bring him victory in battle.

Unlike the more relatable Two Lovers and a Bear, War Witch depicts hardships that are unimaginable to the vast majority of Western society, something Nguyen is very much aware of in his treatment of the film’s subject matter. But make no mistake, this is a brutally visceral experience that does not shy away from the truths of war in Africa and the child soldiers who are forced to fight.

With this being said, Nguyen does not neglect to remind the viewer that many of the soldiers are still children at heart. We see them watching movies together, playfully acting out kung-fu fights, and there is even a budding romance between Komona and another young rebel soldier named Magicien (Serge Kanyinda). But these moments can be fleeting, as death rears its head in each act of the film in an almost passive manner (except when the deaths are of significance to the characters). This technique effectively etches in our minds the fact that death is an everyday part of Komona’s life, and by extension the lives of millions of Africans.

Praise must also be given to Mwanza, who is just a revelation, delivering a nuanced performance that is beyond her years. It is amazing to think that she was discovered while still living on the streets of Kinshasa in the Congo. She shows almost as much ability in her acting, as Nguyen does in his direction and screenwriting, and that is no small statement!

For these reasons, I would call War Witch essential viewing. While it is not a documentary with hard-hitting facts, it instead transcends any previous dramatic depictions I have encountered on the effects of war in Africa. And while the horrors of war is the most well-drawn aspect of the film, the depiction could not work without what I am beginning to see is Nguyen’s trademark mastery for character building. War Witch is a testament to Nguyen’s ability as a filmmaker and storyteller, showing he is capable of evoking a sense of relation in his characters, regardless of their culture or place in the world.

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