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War Witch(Rebelle)

It’s been a long journey getting us here, but I did it. Honestly, it could’ve been sooner, but I’ve been avoiding this one for a while because of its subject matter. But now that I’ve finally watched “War Witch”(known as “Rebelle” originally, and on the festival circuit), I’ve officially brought my readers a review of every single feature-length film that was nominated for the 85th(meaning 2012 films, not the current nominee roster)Academy Awards. That’s 38 movies total, and it includes all mainstream nominees(the easiest to complete, obviously), animated films, documentaries, art films and foreign releases(the most difficult to finish, because 3 of the 5 didn’t see full stateside releases until 2013). I’m still ten short for this year(I’ve watched and reviewed 32 of 42), but it should be easier because a bunch are slated for DVD release in March. A full 7 of those 10 are either animated or foreign language, or both. These are the categories that get me every time. “War Witch”, btw, was the official international Oscar entry from Canada, and its primary languages are French and Lingala. You get the complete picture here, folks. Not all that many blogs or sites can boast that—including some of my favorites.

So, what was so off-putting about “War Witch”(one of the four nominees that fell to the winner, “Amour”)? Everyone should be aware that one of the opening scenes depicts 12-year-old Komona(the astonishing Rachel Mwanza, from the Democratic Republic of the Congo), being forced to shoot her own parents by African rebel forces who have abducted her. The choice they give her is simple: spray them with bullets yourself and execute them quickly, or we hack them to death with machetes for a slower, more tortuous demise. Still, Komona hesitates, until her own father admonishes her to do it. It is considered an initiation by the rebels, who then whisk Komona away to become a soldier herself. It’s an excruciating and unforgettable opening, and one that I’m not completely unfamiliar with. I’ve read often of this horrible practice, and it never failed to tie my stomach in knots. In many of the actual stories, the children were handed the machete instead of the gun. Can you blame me for delaying this long?

Once the narrative proper gets underway, “War Witch” is still effectively brutal, but certainly a bit easier to take. We are taken along with Komona on her terrible odyssey, as she is held hostage and trained to fight—soon becoming adept with an AK-47. But Komona develops a “feather in her cap” to gain respect and leniency from her brutal captors. Upon drinking a hallucinogen found in some forest tree sap, Komona suddenly develops the ability to see “ghosts”. The “gift” becomes priceless when the supernatural beings alert her that enemy forces are approaching. This power becomes useful to the leader Great Tiger(Mizinga Mwinga), who entrusts Komona with becoming his “war witch”, and therefore his protector from assassination. Komona is eventually able to escape the rebel army with an older boy called Magician(an excellent Serge Kanyinda), who earlier introduced her to the sap in the first place. They quickly become inseparable friends, and eventually lovers, but the Great Tiger has had his soldiers searching frantically for his “war witch” all along.

Director and screenwriter Kim Nguyen shows a sure and graceful hand with his minimalist approach to this material. In fact, one of my few quibbles, is the somewhat flamboyant depiction of the “ghosts” in some key scenes. The effect is unquestionably jarring, but possibly somewhat unnecessary. The device fills the “hole” of actual imagination, and I found myself wondering which choice(showing or not showing)would have made the greater impact. “War Witch” is also narrated by Komona, as she confesses her deeds to her unborn child via Magician. It imbues the movie with a melancholic tone, and ensures that we are experiencing the story via flashback over the course of a number of years. This softens the proceedings as well, as we are made aware from the get-go, that at the very least, Komona was able to survive. I don’t want to call that a cheat, but it is most definitely a salve. No matter, because the vast majority of “War Witch” is intense, sobering, and quite good. Ms. Mwanza, in particular, is mesmerizing with her performance. Plus, she’s a virtual amateur, who was found living on the streets of Kinshasa as a child(reportedly, she was born in 1997, and soon abandoned by her parents). It’s a role that has garnered her a number of Best Actress awards, including from both the prestigious Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals. Rachel’s work is considerably charismatic and showcases remarkable poise. For months I kept telling myself that it was essential that I got to “War Witch”. And now that I have, I’m hopefully convincing some of you, to do the very same.     Grade:  B+

next review up:  “Thor: The Dark World”

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