LOS ANGELES — A grave 12-year-old African girl, abducted from her village by vicious armed rebels and forced to wage war as a child soldier, guides the viewer through the horrors of Canadian director Kim Nguyen's engrossing Oscar-nominated drama "War Witch." Managing to be neither sentimental nor sensationalistic, the film tells its story from the heart, and from the simple, straightforward viewpoint of young heroine Komona, warmly played by the talented Rachel Mwanza in her screen debut.
Certainly, watching a little girl live through events that far exceed most adults' nightmares is not easy, and only Komona's indomitable courage and will to survive make the journey bearable. As the off-screen narrator, she tells her unborn baby the story of how she became a child soldier. The real-life horrors she recounts fold into a smooth, dream-like screenplay that doesn't require a lot of on-screen blood and gore to describe what's going on. Despite its extreme cruelty, Komona's story is told with commendable delicacy and reserve, if those terms can be applied to such a tale, but in any case circumventing the usual voyeuristic, colonialist perspective.
The film was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but the action takes place in an unnamed African country, where guerrilla forces lead by youthful warlords wage constant battle on government soldiers sent into the jungle to kill them. The rebels replenish their losses by raiding villages. When Great Tiger's rebels descend on the poor patched-together houses of a coastal village, they kill most of the inhabitants and force the terrified Komona to gun down her own parents; if she doesn't obey, they will kill them, painfully, with machetes. After performing the fateful act, she is proclaimed a rebel, thrown into a dugout canoe and taken deep into the jungle, under the guidance of a screeching male sorcerer who casts spells along the way.
Komona and the other kidnapped children are given huge Kalashnikovs and told, "Your gun is your mother and father." Scared to death and beaten mercilessly by the head soldier, she is given "magic milk," an intoxicant culled from white tree sap, to ease her pain and hunger. She is the only one who survives a government ambush, thanks to her eerie ability to see eyeless gray ghosts in the trees who warn her of the enemy's presence. Recognizing the usefulness of her gift, Great Tiger gives her an AK-47 with magic powers and names her his "war witch." It's a dangerous post, should her intuition fail her, but Komona seems confident of her macabre visions.
Her only friend in the group is an albino boy she calls Magician. The crack of rifles momentarily gives way to some personal happiness when they escape from their captors. They take shelter in the home of Magician's uncle, a butcher who has lost his family in a way so terrible, says Komona, it cannot be told. When Magician announces to the not unwilling girl he wants to marry her, she bargains for time by sending him in quest of a mythical white rooster. This part of the film allows a glimpse into "normal" life, which surreally seems to co-exist side by side with the terror in the jungle. The butcher even has a picture of assassinated Congolese independence leader and prime minister Patrice Lumumba, suggesting an overturned world of legality out there, somewhere. But the only reality the children know is the barrel of a gun and the sharp edge of a machete, and their nightmare is not yet over.
The actors are very spontaneous, particularly self-possessed newcomers Mwanza in the title role and Serge Kanyinda as the unforgettable Magician. The camera only has eyes for them and the adults barely exist as individual characters. Discreetly following the story while highlighting its supernatural aspects, tech work by the Canadian crew strikes the right note.
The story is underlined by Nguyen's exceptional and varied choice of contemporary African music, respectfully setting events in their own cultural framework, like local sorcery and magic. The ghosts who haunt Komona and threaten her unborn baby are just as real or unreal as the soldiers who bury traitors alive. The only time the story jumps out of Africa, be it ever so briefly, is when the kids put down their guns to watch TV and find Jean-Claude Van Damme suited up for war in "Universal Soldier — Regeneration."
"War Witch," a Tribeca Film release, is unrated. 90 minutes.