Rebelle (War Witch)
Summer 2013 Features series
Sunday, July 7, 2013 at 8:00pm
Directed by Kim Nguyen
Screenplay by Kim Nguyen
Starring Serge Kanyinda, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, and Rachel Mwanza
Rated 14A ·
Lingala and French
Rebelle (War Witch)
Written and directed by Montreal’s Kim Nguyen, Rebelle was Canada’s submission for the 2013 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and recently won the Canadian Screen Award for Best Film. Nguyen spent ten years bringing this story to the screen, basing his script on the stories of actual child soldiers and shooting entirely on location in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. His film offers an extraordinary portrait of survival.
The film is narrated by fourteen-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza), who recounts the past two years of her life to her unborn child. Abducted by a rebel army that invades her small village, Komona is forced to commit an unthinkable act — shooting her own parents — before being dragged off into the jungle. Over the next several months, she is inducted into the brutal lifestyle of the child soldier: she is beaten repeatedly, taught to fire an AK-47, and kept in a drugged state by the administration of “magic milk.” One day, Komona has a vision of her parents, who warn her of danger ahead; heeding the apparitions’ advice, she is the only person to escape unscathed from a ferocious firefight.
Impressed by her premonitory powers, the warlord Great Tiger bestows Komona with the title of “War Witch,” which earns her both privileges in the camp and the threat of harsh punishment if her powers fail. When Komona befriends fellow soldier Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), she seems to have found an escape. The two soon run away together and eventually fall in love — but the war is never far away, and their romantic idyll is cut short when they are recaptured by the rebels. Returned to the tyranny of her former life and still haunted by the ghosts of her parents, Komona soon becomes pregnant and struggles to find a ray of hope in her desperate situation.
This is undeniably grim material, but Nguyen leavens it with delicacy and tact, conveying violence by implication and atmosphere rather than through direct depiction. The performances from the mostly nonprofessional cast are vivid and authentic, particularly the extraordinary Mwanza’s portrayal of Komona, which won her the Best Actress prize at the Canadian Screen Awards and at the Berlin and Tribeca film festivals. Heartfelt and helplessly moving, Rebelle guides us through the harsh world of a young girl whose circumstances are tragic, yet whose story is one of formidable courage and unquenchable hope.
“Blending a surrealist perspective of battle-tinged faith with the harrowing tale of one girl’s resilience, the film is a laser-focused fable threatened occasionally by its drifts into character shorthand, but equaled by a wrenching lead performance by Rachel Mwanza that results in one of the finest of the year. For all of its necessary cruelty, War Witch presents at times an almost guarded depiction of child soldier life, leaving signals to the untapped brutalities that normally befall children like Komona, and that hesitant suggestion remains perhaps the most vital yet tragic aspect to this stunning film.” (Charlie Schmidlin, The Playlist)
“An account of a girl soldier struggling to survive in a conflict-torn central African state, Rebelle offers the sort of harrowing experience one would expect given its abominable subject matter. The refreshing surprise is how impressively Canadian-based writerhelmer Kim Nguyen… handles the material, displaying a maturity, panache and emotional marksmanship.” (Leslie Felperin, Variety)