Thirty minutes into Kim Nguyen’s film War Witch (2012) (simply titled Rebelle in its original French Canadian release) I knew I was watching something like nothing I had seen before. Nguyen’s film is based on true stories of child soldiers captured in Burma by rebels to fight against the government army. The film is set in the Democratic Republic of Congo and told through the eyes and words of the young girl Komona. It follows Komona from ages 12-14 as she is torn from her childhood and thrown into the blood-drenched violent chaos of an unnamed African civil war. The story is harrowing, brutal and heartbreaking, yet the cinematography is so beautiful, the camerawork so sensitive and perfectly executed that the pain is brought to the surface not through overwrought melodrama but through quiet beauty meshed with violent reality. Komona’s tale will rip your heart out for sure, but her survival is not the result of some Western Deus Ex Machina, some prince on a white horse, or helicopter for World Relief. Rather Komona’s survival is a result of her own will, her personal strength, her instincts, and her ability to continue to move forward and keep herself alive even as her world is crushing in on her.
So no, War Witch is not the kind of movie we usually see about Africa. This is not United Nations Cinema and a vehicle for white people to feel bad about Third World struggles so they can feel good about themselves for feeling bad. Rather, War Witch delivers African Realism like we’ve never seen on the screen before. It is experiential cinema, and the experience is not filtered through the propaganda of Hollywood or Western culture. War Witch is the tale of heartbreaking survival in an environment where the odds against survival are stacked as deeply as the boxes of AK47s which young children wield against an unnamed government army. But through the set location, mechanisms of production, cinematography and acting, the film allows the audience to breathe even in a seemingly suffocating and hopeless world. We are given a chance to feel and experience the plight of Komona, yet without a didactic Western imprint.
Komona’s story could be called a coming of age story, but that is too tame a phrase for this film. If Hollywood made this movie, perhaps it would be a coming of age story. It would undoubtedly involve some sort of Western intervention – the Peace Corps, missionaries, the World Health Organization, Doctors Without Borders, or maybe even Bono or Madonna. But the young protagonist in this film isn’t even allowed to come of age. Rather Komona’s childhood is violently ripped away from her, and she is thrust into a tale of survival against all odds in a landscape whose bloody and violent history rustles in every leaf on every tree and every blade of grass in the film. For the entire 90 minutes we are immersed in Komona’s life within her African culture. There is not one single white person to offset, dilute, or Westernize this exceptionally harrowing and heartbreaking vision of life in the Congo. In other words, this is not Out of Africa, The Constant Gardener or Blood Diamond. War Witch is African Realism, and realism in the Congo includes traditional practices of African magic and ritual combined with guns, child soldiers, chaos and a landscape soaked with the blood of its violent history.
The only image of a white person who appears in the entire film is Jean-Claude Van Damme’s distorted and blurred face projected from a shitty VHS tape of Universal Soldier projected on a beat-up TV that is used for a theater to entertain (and indoctrinate) the army of children with guns. The children applaud with glee and raise their guns in celebration and victory as the credits of the movie role and they identify with the plight and victory of Van Damme’s vigilante rebel hero. Other elements of Western culture are strewn through the film like so much litter. The film begins with Komona’s face staring from behind a commercial banner which provides a makeshift wall for her shantytown house. The banner literally frames her face before the rebels arrive, kill off the adults in the village, and capture the children as soldiers. The film ends with Komona playing out her final struggle while wearing a t-shirt with the brand ABERCROMBIE emblazoned across its bloody and dirt smeared front. So while Komona’s story is grounded completely within its Congo setting, the imprint of Western culture certainly exists but not in any heroic sense by a long shot.
In fact, the rebel army that captures Komona and is led by a leader simply known as Great Tiger barters in the mineral coltan and exploits his child soldiers not just to fight against the government army but also to mine this mineral which is exported and sold to make cell phones. Nearly 80% of the world supply of coltan comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The children are taught to see the mineral as the source of magic power (particularly that of its rebel leader) when in reality it is just a natural resource being sold to the profit of few at the expense of many, including children. So ties to Western culture certainly exist in the film, but not in a very favorable light.
This brings me to the title of the film War Witch and Komona’s story. The film opens with a pan of the shantytown where Komona lives. Komona’s mother braids her hair as we hear Komona’s voice begin to narrate her tale in a voiceover that runs throughout the film. Komona tells her story to her unborn child, and she prays to God that she won’t hate the baby. The words she speaks are so brutal in contrast to the image of the innocent twelve year old child walking out into the sun, her hair spiked with the braids her mother just gave her. Komona bounces playfully on a wooden board, and the fragility of the board, the fact that it can crack at any moment, sets the tone for the world that is about to collapse around this twelve year old girl. Smoke from war rises beyond the grassy planes where Komona plays. Everything in this opening picture is a painful contradiction. Here we see a young girl carving childhood joy out of a precarious landscape of poverty and violence. She turns her head to a sound in the distance, and in a flash her world rips apart as she runs screaming for the people of her village to take cover. The rebel army arrives, slaughters the adults and captures the children to serve as its soldiers.
In a scene of unbearable pain and tension, the rebels place an AK47 in Komona’s hands and tell her to shoot her parents or the soldiers will violently butcher them with machetes. The parents implore Komona quietly to go ahead and shoot them. Komona pulls the trigger and rapid gunfire punctuates the tears that roll down her cheeks. Her braided hair is the last trace of her childhood as she walks out with the soldiers in a state of shock. At that moment, the twelve year old Komona is thrust abruptly into a violent adult world where all she can do is fight for her survival, a world where she learns “to turn the tears inside her eyes” so they can’t be seen and she won’t be beaten.
Enslaved by the rebel army, Komona covers her braids with a cloth band. In other words, the last trace of her childhood is covered with garments of war. She and the other child soldiers are given AK47s and told that the guns are their mother and their father now. Their ancestral traditions have been replaced by the violence of war. The children walk through the Congo landscape weighed down by ammunition and sacks of coltan.
This all sounds brutally harrowing, and it is. But what moves the film beyond a relentlessly hopeless, bleak and violent tale of one girl’s struggle is the way in which Nguyen blends traditional African Vodun (spiritual magic) practices with the hard reality of war and violence and the way the cinematography heightens this blend. From the onset of Komona’s capture by the rebels, magic, war and violence are all mixed up. The cinematography literally saturates the screen with color and light, propelling this tragic and violent tale into a kind of magical realm that has been usurped by the forces of civil war. Magic is as much a part of the reality of this film as the war that is being fought. One young soldier tosses a handful of rocks and reads their position to determine the troop’s next tactical maneuver as if he is reading tea leaves. When the new children recruits are given their AK47s, it is done with ritualistic song and dance combined with a celebratory shower of gunfire, a coming of age ritual performed with bullets instead of herbs.
In order to make life in the frontlines more bearable, the child soldiers drink hallucinatory “magic milk” that comes from tree sap. This alters their sense of reality, and turns violence into a dream instead of a nightmare. When Komona takes her first drink, she wanders through the jungle hallucinating. She stumbles onto a road and has a vision of two ghosts of the dead. They warn Komona to run because government forces are coming. Komona yells at her rebel group to flee, but it’s too late. Gun fire explodes from the jungle as if the landscape itself has been transformed into a weapon, and every single child from Komona’s village is shot dead except for her.
As the lone survivor, Komona is named “War Witch” by rebel leader Great Tiger. The rebels celebrate Komona’s magical contribution to their guerilla efforts by shooting off their guns into the night. The night sky explodes with orange fireworks from gunfire from automatic weapons. The troops celebrate their new “War Witch” in an apocalyptic vision of chaos and ritual. Komona, on the other hand, sits quietly shut off from the revelry, her face a portrait of inverted stone. Great Tiger may have named her a War Witch, but she is a reluctant witch. All she knows is death, brutality, pain and blood. She is named witch simply as a tool for Great Tiger to exert power over his enslaved troops and hold them in his spell, and Komona will be killed off as soon as she ceases to be valuable. Not a lot of magic in that formula. The close-up of Komona’s resigned face cuts to a brief scene in the middle of the celebration when Great Tiger guns down one of his rebels for stealing some of the coveted coltan.
Guns, as witnessed in this scene and many others in the film, are directly connected to ritual and magic. They have been integrated into the violent culture as much as Vodun magic itself. Children wear rifles as if the weapons are extensions of their bodies, prosthetic limbs. Their young bodies are laden with ammunition straps like the costumes of ancestral warrior rituals. The rifles are lifted and fired in celebration. They are used to slaughter the enemy as if they are divine weapons. The powder from bullets is used to light fires. Komona is given a “magic” AK47 with carved Vodun images on its grip – the Witch Gun. But there is no magic in these rifles, and Komona knows it, just like she is no War Witch. In Komona’s world, tradition has been replaced by ammunition. The kind of blood sacrifice witnessed in this film has nothing to do with offerings to the gods, but is senseless violence without reason or spiritual connection.
Komona hooks up with a fellow young soldier (one of her original captors) Magicien when she glimpses him performing magic in his sleeping quarters. Magicien, an albino soldier, shows her strings of stones and bones that represent his dead ancestors and a wing of a bird that represents freedom of the spirit. Komona looks on hopefully as if she can find a glimpse of something beyond the hell she is living. Magicien opens her palm and places a string tied around a cluster of rocks in Komona’s hand. He shakes violently with the magical energy of the talisman, infusing it with Vodun spirit, and he tells Komona to keep it in her pocket to protect her from war. Magicien himself wears a similar talisman around his neck to protect him. But in the end, the talismans are made of rocks, string, and other junk and only allow for momentary glimpses of possible protection, a small taste for magic in a world where AK47s and machetes trump magical powers. Magicien and others infuse Vodun rituals and talismans with faith because they need to hold onto something that is greater than the sum of their reality (death, blood, death, blood).
In a bloody shoot-out on a great rocky expanse, both Magicien and Komona let lose all their anger, rage and confusion as they fire violently at the encroaching enemy. Komona lifts her “magic rifle” and fires while screaming. Magicien fires endless rounds through a mounted machine gun. After the battle, a lone AK47 stands mounted as Komona watches the ghosts of the dead move silently over the rocks. The ghosts Komona sees are filmed beautifully and subtly almost like whispers as their white bodies and empty eyes roam the war-torn landscape. Their beauty fills the ghosts with both grace and tragedy.
After the shootout on the rocks, Magicien convinces Komona to flee the rebels. He proclaims his love for her and asks her to marry him. In a momentary glimpse of real magic and sincere beauty and tenderness and an attempt to reclaim the ancestry that was stolen from her, Komona proclaims that she will only marry Magicien if he gives her a white rooster which is the African tradition she learned from her father. Magicien takes his charge seriously and embarks on an often humorous and heartwarming hunt for a white rooster, providing a window of relief in a film that is suffocatingly brutal. Magicien eventually finds the white rooster in a community of albinos like himself, and he trades his magic for the bird. The albino community is filmed through an overexposed sun-soaked lens and shows happy families, children and adults smiling and living freely. There is not a gun in sight. It is a tiny window of possible utopia in the hell that is Magicien and Komona’s world.
With the white rooster strapped to the back of a motorcycle, Komona and Magicien are happily married and in love. They go to live with Magicien’s uncle “The Butcher” whose entire family was slaughtered in war. Komona and Magicien laugh and kiss in the fields with the grass blowing around them. But there is tremendous tension under the laughter and the smiles. The fragility of their connection blows through the landscape. The cinematography captures a landscape in a constant state of agitation. We know that the rustle of the grass could be the result of a playful breeze or could be a disruption from the feet of soldiers moving toward them. The landscape is filled with beauty and potential danger. There are secrets lurking in its recesses, and those secrets come bearing weapons. Danger rises violently and breaks the magic spell that briefly holds Magicien and Komona together. In a violent clash between love and pain, magic and reality, Magicien is butchered before Komona’s eyes, and she is taken as a sex slave to another rebel leader.
At this point, Komona goes into aggressive survival mode. She fights off her slave by combining magic with cold hard tactical strategy. She inserts a seed pod in her vagina, an act that could seem like a Vodun ritual, but which is actually a tactical maneuver to castrate the man who rapes her. She then wields a machete and brings him down with the force of a lion. The magic is gone for Komona, War Witch or not. The only magic she has is her own strength to survive, which proves to be a miraculous force.
Bleeding and pregnant with her rapist’s baby, Komona moves through her fourteenth year in a haze of extreme Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She thinks everyone and everything is a threat. Her internal state of self-imposed disassociation turns into a toxic cocktail of unspoken outrage. She eventually wanders off alone where she rows a canoe back to her homeland, pausing along the way and doubling over in labor pains. She delivers her baby on the shore entirely on her own, pushing it out of her body as if she is pushing every bad thing that she has witnessed in her young life, every horror she has committed under force and that has been committed against her.
With her baby in her arms, Komona returns to her home to bury the ghosts of her parents who have been haunting her since she was forced to kill them. Komona stands in the spot where she held the AK47 in her 12 year old arms and fired on her parents. She looks at the bullet holes and blood stains on the linen blowing in a dirty breeze, and it is utterly devastating, the only material left of her childhood home.
In the dirt on the ground she finds the broken remains of the comb her mother used to braid her hair during those last moments of Komona’s childhood. The comb had been stomped on, crushed, and shattered by rebel soldiers. She takes the comb’s broken body and a shirt and performs a burial in the sand. In this scene, she sings a song setting her spirit and her parents’ spirits free as she buries the ghosts of her parents, her lost childhood, and everything that was stolen from her. Finally the tears she hasn’t shed run quietly down her cheeks.
We see these tears as we always seen Komona, in absolute close-up. Her face fills the screen. The emotions locked inside her stone face are as volatile a force as the landscape she occupies. Every moment she is filmed, the strength she exerts to contain her emotions pushes out of the frame of the screen. Rachel Mwanza, the young actress who plays Komona, brings such enormous emotional presence to the character that it feels like we embody her as we are immersed in this violent world through a child’s experiences. Every scene carries a tremendous sense of immediacy and shock.
One of the reasons the film is so emotionally effective is because Nguyen uses non-actors. Rachel Mwanza was actually a child living on the streets when she was recruited for this role. Most of the actors can’t read. They were given only a page or two of script at a time and had no indication of what was going to happen next in the film’s story, so every act in the movie played out as if it would in real life – unpredictably. The actors responded with immediate emotion that was captured on film. This is not highly polished and rehearsed Hollywood filmmaking. This is largely unpracticed spontaneous human emotion, and it seeps through the film as densely as the beautifully rich cinematography.
By the end of the film, we have followed young Komona as she is forced to kill her own parents, pick up an AK47 to fight government soldiers, become enslaved by rebel leaders, go on a hunt for a magic white rooster, watch the ground literally drip with blood from those she is forced to kill and those who she watches get killed, and finally give birth to the child of her rapist. Certainly this could be the material of overwrought melodrama, but the film never once lapses into that exploitive Westernized territory. It stays true to its unique brand of harrowing cinematic magic grounded in the brutal realism of the Congo and the history of senseless violence and civil war that have soaked that land in blood. In War Witch magic and the real are combined to show a tale of survival on its own brutal terms. At the end of the film, when Komona falls asleep in the back of a truck, she has saved herself through her own perseverance and resourcefulness, not from some divine intervention, magic spell or Western aid. Her baby resting in the arms of a stranger, Komona lays her head on a sack, and she finally falls asleep. At age fourteen, she has her whole life ahead of her, or maybe she doesn’t . . .
Kim Nicolini is an artist, poet and cultural critic living in Tucson, Arizona. Her writing has appeared in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Souciant, La Furia Umana, and The Berkeley Poetry Review. She recently published her first book, Mapping the Inside Out, in conjunction with a solo gallery show by the same name. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.