An account of a girl soldier struggling to survive in a conflict-torn central African state, “War Witch” offers the sort of harrowing experience one would expect given its abominable subject matter. The refreshing surprise is how impressively Canadian-based writer-helmer Kim Nguyen, little known beyond fantasy fest circles, handles the material, displaying a maturity, panache and emotional marksmanship that will elevate his reputation several notches. Pic will bewitch fest programmers but the premise will prove a hard sell to auds, despite the restrained approach to onscreen violence that, given the horrors of the region’s conflicts, could have been so much worse.
Lensed on a richly hued HD format that allows for handheld immediacy but never looks like reportage, the pic is filtered through the eyes of Komona (non-pro discovery Rachel Mwanza), whose sparingly deployed voiceover addresses her unborn child, stating ominously that she doesn’t know if “God will give me the strength to love you.” The visceral, knockout opening scene, which depicts rebel soldiers invading her village, abducting Komona and forcing her to kill her own parents, only scratches the surface of why this 12-year-old child will become so damaged over the course story’s two-year timespan.
Deep in the jungle, Komona and her fellow abductees are issued AK-47s and told that henceforth, the weapons will be their mothers and fathers. Two slightly older boys with reputed shamanistic powers, one of them an albino named Magician (Serge Kanyinda), introduce her to a tree sap that induces hallucinatory visions. While leading a patrol through the foliage, Komona comes across the ghosts of her own parents (Starlette Mathata and Alex Herabo, wearing white body paint and disturbing, dead-eyed contact lenses), who warn her to run just in time before the government forces open fire.
Komona’s miraculous survival enhances her reputation among the rebels, and their leader, Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), dubs her his latest “war witch,” which means the overseers aren’t allowed to whip her. Still, like her fellow conscripts, Komona still has to dig for coltan, a metallic ore and one of several so-called “blood minerals” over which factions are fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the film was shot (although no one ever says in which country the action is supposed to be taking place).
After another battle fought among ominous gray boulders that match tonally with the ghosts of the newly killed, Komona and Magician run off together. He proposes, initiating a romantic quest that provides a gentle second-act breather from the bookending scenes of carnage. Nguyen’s spiral-structured script, in which events keep being repeated with increasing monstrosity each time, holds an awful fate in store for a number of the characters, one of which will set male auds in particular squirming in sympathy.
The final reels run slightly low on dramatic gas, but what’s come before is so impactful and disturbing that the film continues to haunt long after the end credits roll. Nguyen has found a canny way to dovetail the different strands of his imagination, such as the fascination with Africa explored in his period war film “La Cite,” and the interest in the supernatural on display in “The Marsh” and “Truffe.”
Having learned a smart lesson from the best horror and fantasy pics, Nguyen knows less can be more when it comes to depicting atrocities. Nothing is more chilling here than the scene in which Komona says she won’t explain what happened to the family of one character, a butcher who keeps a bucket by his work table in case he needs to throw up, because if she did, nothing else would be heard after that. Anyone who’s ever read detailed accounts of the conflicts in the region, or seen docu “Blood in the Mobile” or child-soldier-themed features “Johnny Mad Dog” or “Heart of Fire,” can all too easily guess about the grisly details.
As a consequence of its discretion, “War Witch” has perhaps better-than-usual commercial prospects for a pic on this subject. Along with the moral lesson, Nguyen remembers to give auds some pleasures, including the exquisitely chosen soundtrack of African folk and pop music, Nicolas Bolduc’s cinematography and the very artful use of sound throughout.