Review: War Witch (aka Rebelle)


She’s 12, her country is in a civil war and she’s been kidnapped.

Komona, played with stunning naturalness by 15-year-old Rachel Mwanza, is thrown over an invading rebel’s back while the villagers in her little river outpost are sprayed with machine gun fire. At one point, she is dropped to her feet. A rifle is thrust into her hands and she is expected to pull the trigger on the couple huddled before her – her shaking parents.

We’ve heard about child soldiers, all boys who have been rounded up and compromised into bizarre, brutal bondage. But this story of a girl in a similar circumstance is remarkably different.

Based on real stories, “War Witch” reflects the new millennium’s One Billion Rising, the movement against violence against women. Komona not only rises in cleverness, but transcends in mind and spirit.

She is guided by an inner voice – represented as the voice of her parents – that allows her to make survival decisions in a split second. She earns her nomenclature as her captors have her march into the open to see if government forces open fire. Her ghosts tell her to turn back and run. She does. The government army open fires and just about everyone is killed but her. Her uncanny survival earns her the name War Witch and she becomes revered as a good luck charm.

Kim Nguyen, a Canadian writer and director, interviewed the street kids of Kinshasa in The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) for this film. It was here that he found Rachel Mwanza, who had previously appeared in a documentary. She’d been living on the streets since the age of 6. Nguyen has reported that since she didn’t know how to read she was directed using improvisations. In order for her to understand the story, he also shot the film chronologically.

This all works because Mwanza clearly becomes Komona. Her coming-of-age story growing up in an unsafe world, could be the story of women everywhere. Initially innocent of the insanity and brutality in life outside a sheltered community, she is catapulted into a world where she must develop her own protective mechanisms. Paralleling the guiding inner voices of her ghost parents, the film begins with her talking to her unborn child, another spirit within her. She says, knowing who the father is and how she became pregnant, “I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you.”

Then Komona takes us back through time to tell her story, beginning when the rebels ransacked her village through to the time she inserts a razor into her vagina to fight back against the next to enter her.

“War Witch” won the Tribeca Best Film Award and is one of five films in contention for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. “War Witch” was also showcased as the opening film for the 2012 Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Not surprisingly, Rachel Mwanza won best actress at both the Tribeca and Berlin International Film Festivals.

“War Witch” is featured this month at the Portland International Film Festival on Feb. 18, 2013. You can see the movie’s trailer HERE.

Film Credits
Director and Writer: Kim Nguyen
Producers: Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin
Stars: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanvinda
Country: Canada
Filming location: Democratic Republic of the Congo
Language: French and Lingala with English subtitles
Runtime: 90 minutes
Release date: Aug. 23, 2012 (Netherlands) and Film Festivals
Aka: Rebelle

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