LOS ANGELES - The powerful things we expect from "War Witch" are as advertised, but what we don't expect is even better.
Given that the subject matter is two violent years in the life of an African child soldier, it's not surprising that the film's events are disturbing and even horrific. But it's the unforeseen way they're told that makes "War Witch" potent enough to have been one of the five nominees for the foreign language Oscar and the big winner, including best picture, at Canada's recent film awards.
With the epidemic of child soldiers as its theme, the opportunities certainly exist in "War Witch" for overwrought, overemotional storytelling. But Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen has taken great care to tell his story the opposite way, to be dispassionate and observational in the laying out of events.
More than that, Nguyen, working in the Democratic Republic of Congo with cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, has brought an unanticipated amount of filmmaking skill to the telling, using beautiful imagery, a sure hand with actors and a high level of structural artistry to make a film that would be impressive no matter what the subject matter.
The real-life story of actress Rachel Mwanza, who plays protagonist Komona, is almost as dramatic as the film's narrative. A street child discovered in Kinshasa, the Congo's capital, Mwanza does such an impressive job conveying a multitude of emotional states that she won the Silver Bear for lead actress at the Berlin Film Festival, the first African performer to do so.
To help with the reality of the situation and to make things more manageable for his nonprofessional star, who, as was the case with some of the other actors, could not read, Nguyen shot the film in sequence and exposed the cast to only a few pages of the script at a time to help preserve the immediacy of their directed improvisation responses. "They didn't have to fake anticipation," the director told the Los Angeles Times, "because they didn't know what was going to happen."
The first time we see Komona, she is 12 and balancing on a makeshift teeter-totter, an image that emphasizes how much of a child she is and how precarious is her place in the world. "War Witch" is structured as a flashback dialogue between her slightly older self, pregnant at 14, and her unborn child: "I have to tell you," she says in voice-over, "how I became a soldier for the rebels."
Komona's nightmare begins when a ragtag group of soldiers owing allegiance to a rebel leader known as the Great Tiger attacks her village, takes her prisoner and insists that she shoot her parents if she doesn't want to see them hacked to death by machete.
In the bush with the rebels, Komona quickly realizes that showing any emotion is the kiss of death: "I had to learn," she says in a memorable phrase, "to make the tears go inside my eyes." She's indoctrinated to treat her AK-47 as her new mother and father and is also introduced to "magic milk," a natural psychedelic found in the sap of a tree.
Under the influence of that substance, Komona begins to see dead people (Nguyen handles these visions with particular artistry), and when she is the only child from her village to survive a government attack, the rebels start to think of her as a sorceress. Soon she is brought to meet the Great Tiger, who anoints her as his war witch.
The only recognizably human connection Komona forms during this period is with a fellow soldier named Magician (Serge Kanyinda), and this couple's efforts to escape rebel control and begin a normal life amid overwhelming chaos and death are heartbreaking. Though its story sounds as familiar as ever-present newspaper headlines, "War Witch" has found a way to make it stand out from the crowd.
*** 1/2 • Not rated.
• Director: Kim Nguyen.
• Cast: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda.
• Running time: 90 minutes.