“War Witch” is a Canadian film about child soldiers in Africa. It was written and directed by Kim Nguyen who was inspired by a story about child soldiers in Burma. He met with actual child soldiers to write the screenplay. He decided to set the movie in a fictional African civil war. The movie was filmed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The production had to hire security armed with AK-47s. Many of the roles were given to amateur Congolese actors. The main role of Komona was given to fifteen-year-old Rachel Mwanza, who was homeless and living on the streets when she auditioned. She did not know how to read or write. The movie was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film by the Academy Awards.
The movie opens with a raid on Komona’s village by rebel forces led by Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). She is conscripted and forced to execute her parents. She is told that her gun is her mother and father now. She joins other children as members of the rebel group. They are trained as soldiers. She is twelve at the time. Komona gets a reputation as a witch and becomes Great Tiger’s personal sorceress. When hallucinating, she can see government soldiers hiding in the jungle, so she is special. She is befriended by a teenage warrior named Magician (Serge Kanyinda). They fall in love and escape the rebels in an attempt to live a normal life, but that is not in the cards.
“War Witch” treads similar ground to “Beasts of No Nation”. Both have a teenage soldier as the protagonist who are under the sway of a charismatic rebel leader. The differences include that “War Witch” has a female main character and “Beast” concentrates much more on the leader (played by Idris Elba). They share the unrealistic depiction of just how bad life was for the typical child soldier. Komona’s arc is not nearly harsh enough and the upbeat ending is not convincing. She does not become a hardened killer (similar to Agu in “Beasts”). An unrelenting look at the life of a child soldier probably would not be commercially viable, so you can not fault Nguyen for not wallowing in the inhumanity and desensitization most child soldiers experience. There are enough visceral scenes in the movie to get the point across and its not a documentary. It is the tale of a remarkable teenage girl who survives against the odds. The main reason to watch the movie, besides to get informed about child soldiers in Africa, is the performance of Rachel Mwanza. Considering her background, her debut is awesome. She carries the film. She won several acting awards.
The movie is a bit overrated. It is too spare to really have a major impact on the viewer. There is not a lot of dialogue. There is no big picture and no villain. However, it is not predictable. Partly this is because it pulls its punches a bit. If seen as a tale of a teenage girl’s journey through the shoals of warfare, it can be entertaining. You won’t leave it without wondering how this kind of thing can happen to children.
GRADE = B