You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

War Witch

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.

With: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Bastien, Serge Kanyinda, Ralph Prosper, Mizinga Mwinga, Jean Kabuya, Jupiter Bokondji, Starlette Mathata, Alex Herabo. (French, Lingala dialogue)

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.

War Witch


Production: An Item 7, Studio Shen presentation, with the participation of Telefilm Canada, Sodec, Cinema and Television Tax Credits, Gestion Sodec, Canadian Tax Credit, Vision Globale. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin. Co-producers, Kim Nguyen. Directed, written by Kim Nguyen.

Crew: Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Nicolas Bolduc; editor, Richard Comeau; production designer, Emmanuel Frechette; costume designer, Eric Poirier; sound (Dolby Digital), Claude Le Haye; supervising sound editor/sound designer, Martin Pinsonnault; re-recording mixer, Bernard Gariepy-Strobl; visual effects supervisor, Marc Murusselles; visual effects, Visuale Globale; line producer, Anne-Marie Gelinas; assistant director, Pierre Magny; casting, Josa Maule, Kiripi Katembo Siku. Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 17, 2012. Running time: 89 MIN.

Cast: With: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Bastien, Serge Kanyinda, Ralph Prosper, Mizinga Mwinga, Jean Kabuya, Jupiter Bokondji, Starlette Mathata, Alex Herabo. (French, Lingala dialogue)

More Scene

  • Karl Lagerfeld'Lagerfeld Confidential' Photocall at the

    Karl Lagerfeld Remembered at Costume Designers Guild Awards

    The death of fashion and costume designer Karl Lagerfeld cast somewhat of a shadow over the usually jubilant Costume Designers Guild Awards — the only award show where clothes literally steal the spotlight away from actors — which was held at the Beverly Hilton on Tuesday night. Here it was obvious that Lagerfeld’s impact on [...]

  • Kate Bosworth'Nona' film premiere, New York,

    Kate Bosworth Helps Launch Campaign for Female Filmmakers

    In her 20-year career in Hollywood, Kate Bosworth has starred in blockbusters like “Superman Returns” as well as indie darlings like 2014’s “Still Alice.” But the actress has always had a desire to get more involved from the ground up. Now, she is partnering with Women In Film and Chloe Wine Collection to launch the [...]

  • Amandla Stenberg and Sofia CarsonVanity Fair

    Oscar Week Kicks Off With Vanity Fair's New Hollywood Party

    The night was definitely still young Tuesday at Vanity Fair’s New Hollywood party in Los Angeles. The magazine kicked off Oscar week with a party — the first of its three-event Campaign Hollywood series — at Ysabel in West Hollywood to celebrate new and emerging talent. More Reviews TV Review: 'This Giant Beast That Is [...]

  • Oscars Ultimate Party Guide

    Oscars Ultimate Party Guide 2019

    Welcome to Oscar week. It’s the time of year when Hollywood’s film industry celebrates all things movies. But it’s certainly not just the big show everyone is looking forward to. More Reviews TV Review: 'This Giant Beast That Is the Global Economy' Berlin Film Review: 'Flesh Out' With voting closed, it’s all about the parties [...]

  • Yalitza AparicioTeen Vogue Young Hollywood Party,

    'Roma' Star Yalitza Aparicio, 'Central Park Five's' Jharrel Jerome Sound Off on Trump

    Yalitza Aparicio recently reunited with Alfonso Cuarón, who directed her in “Roma,” for a W magazine photo project that featured her standing at various barriers built at the border between Mexico and the United States. The message? “You can make a name for yourself despite the differences,” Aparicio told Variety on Friday at Teen Vogue’s Young [...]

  • Karl LagerfeldChanel Paris-Londres 2007/8 Show, London,

    Legendary Fashion Designer Karl Lagerfeld Dies at 85

    Karl Lagerfeld, the fashion icon – and iconoclast – who outfitted and photographed such stars as Nicole Kidman and Lady Gaga, has died. He was 85. Lagerfeld died in Paris, fashion house Chanel said. Although his health had been failing, he kept working up to his death, issuing instructions regarding Fendi’s fall ready-to-wear collection, which [...]

  • Eric Wareheim, 'The Simpsons' E.P. Matt

    Beefsteak Gathers Comedy Bigwigs for Meat and Mayhem

    The masterminds behind Beefsteak, a debauched tribute to the meaty arts that raises thousands for the Los Angeles Food Bank, switch things up each year so that guests are never bored. Organized by comedy players including Eric Wareheim, “The Simpsons” executive producer Matt Selman, and ABC Studios VP of comedy Cort Cass with Redbird chef Neal [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content