The Canadian-Vietnamese writer-director reveals the long journey of his Oscar-nominated film, from researching child soldiers to finding Mobutu’s private palace.
14 Mar 2013 - 2:41 PM  UPDATED 14 Mar 2013 - 2:41 PM

Rebelle (War Witch) is an extraordinary story of resilience that has connected with the hearts and minds of audiences – and festival judges – since making its international debut at the 2012 Berlin Film Festival. The film's dream run extended to the Academy Awards, where it was one of the Best Foreign Language Film nominees that got pipped at the post by the favourite, Michael Haneke's Amour.

You should capture what’s there, what’s authentic and what’s true.

Canadian-Vietnamese filmmaker Kim Nguyen devoted a decade to crafting the story, and meeting ex-soldiers, to get himself into the mindset of a young girl forcibly enlisted into a warlord's army. Nguyen spoke to SBS Film in the days following his experience of the Oscars, on the eve of the film's Australian release.

War Witch review: A child's eye view of atrocity
A soulful insight into Congolese child soldiers.

An obvious place to start: How did you conceive of a story told from the perspective of a child soldier?

The idea came initially from the stories of two child soldiers that I had read up about: Johnny Htoo and his brother Luther. Johnny was nine years-old, woke up one day, said he was a reincarnation of God, and led an army of about 200 soldiers to make war against the soldiers of the government.

There were different parallel stories that nourished the film: there's this very naive love story that makes a lot of sense when it is superimposed onto the war story; and there are the elements that the Congo itself gave to the film, the 21st Century post-contemporary aesthetic and all of its idiosyncrasies. All of these three layers have their own translucence and the movie was built out of all three layers.

Talk us through the process of how you bound these elements together?

The story itself took quite a while to build – over a period of about eight years. This was for many different reasons but one of the most important ones was just the craft of writing, which I find takes much more time than directing. That's how long it took to learn about the mistakes I'd made. You see, I was developing many stories at that same time – many of which are reading maturity just now – so it's like you're making the same mistakes over and over. Another was travelling to Burundi and meeting ex-child soldiers [for research] and finding those paradoxes that you can't invent. You have to see them for yourself.

On those conversations: How did you find ex-child soldiers, and how receptive were they to talking to you about their experiences?

I met them through a friend who was working for World Food Program at the time. He was stationed in Angola and then Burundi, which is the reason I went there. He guided me to the depths of Burundi, down to near Tanzania. I also met this amazing guy called Alexander who would tell me basically the context of Africa – its relationship to magic. He was also the one who brought the idea of the symbol of the white rooster.

The narrative hinges on our ability to identify with Komona. How did you find your way in to telling her story?

There's something paradoxical that came up when we started designing the film, it's a completely subjective film, told through the eyes of Komona. I felt in a way that being subjective empirically, visually, makes it more objective in a psychological way; we were closer to her inner emotional space. We're more objective to how child soldiers twist reality through their beliefs, through the use of drugs, through the indoctrination process.

I relate a lot to that scheme of things – to the aesthetic of magic realism. I find that it creates something interesting – when you create this kind of very palpable reality and then at some point you just get off that reality, and bring something that comes from the irrational. It's not like surrealism, it's really like magic.

That magic realism also extends to the setting... Was it always your intent to shoot in the Congo?

We visited the Congo and Cameroon and Kenya. We knew that Kenya had much better infrastructure for filming than Congo did but the load of idiosyncrasies that fill Congo in such an immense way just wasn't imitable anywhere else. We found the abandoned Asian base that was built by Mobutu at the time – the Great Tiger's base, that was a real thing that Mobutu had built for himself in the '80s; he'd visited the Forbidden City in China and brought 200 architects into the middle of the jungle and had himself his own private Asian palace where he would receive his dignitaries from Europe, America and China. When we got there it was completely abandoned, it was just mesmerising: the place was completely covered in creepers and the jungle had just started to eat it, it was just beautiful. All of Congo is like that, actually.

You don't skimp on depicting the brutal violence Komona has to endure – of course, in the opening scenes when she is forced to shoot her parents. Can we talk about your choices in showing the contrast between how brutal her circumstances were, and how she copes with them?

Absolutely, you're absolutely right, the idea that I tried to convey is the sense of giving a subjective point of view. I wanted to show the violence through the filters of the character's psyche. And I wanted to try to bring the spectator to this kind of emotional state where the violence is tamed by her beliefs and her hallucinations; before you see the red blood leaking on the floor, you see the ghosts. It's not necessarily the hallucinations that I'd read about, but it came close to what I could imagine is the work of your own psyche trying to tame violence. It puts this kind of veil in front of the violence that you're facing. It's kind of a symbol, building this idea that vengeance makes you blind to the violence that you see before you.

We can't talk about this film without talking about Rachel [Mwanza]. How did you find her, and then help her through the process?

Actually Rachel is right next to me right now; we were in Los Angeles and she's come over for the Canadian Screen Awards – we decided to, why not, use the opportunity to bring her here as she got a nomination. [Editor's note: Mwanza subsequently won Best Actress in one of 10 CSA gongs collected by the film, including best film and best director for Nguyen.]

So much of the film is simply her performance. It is her unique performance, for me she was like, one in a million. Since there were a lot of non-actors, we decided not to show the script to the actors, and to film the film chronologically. We wanted to reveal things in the film, as we made the film, so the non-actors didn't know what was going to happen the next day in the arc of their characters. They didn't have to fake anticipation – they just really didn't know what was going to happen to them. Some of Rachel's scenes moved me so much I was dumbfounded, like when she pulled off the scene when she was supposed to kill her parents – that was actually the first take that you see of the film. I asked Rachel how she got to nail those scenes and she just said that she thinks about her past and what she's been through and the sad moments she's been through in her life and that's what she brings to the screen. It's pure method acting but it's entirely out of instinct.

And what did her performance teach you? What have you taken from that process?

Yeah, one thing that is really important to me from now on is to really focus on capturing authenticity rather than having like, a shopping list of shots that you have to do, almost like if you're reading a recipe for making a cake.

I think that the writing process should always be something that's, like, 'on'. You should always be writing your story, you should always be rewriting as you're filming and not have preconceived ideas of what the story is going to be. You should capture what's there, what's authentic and what's true. Capture what's idiosyncratic and keep working at it. Keep being in the moment. That's the biggest gift that this film gave to me, apart from the amazing human adventure.

An enormous part of the film is the music, which is absolutely beautiful…

Yes, it really is. Very technically now, when I go and edit, I make sure that I don't have temp tracks anymore. I make sure that we can acquire the rights to the music I use in my rough cut. I decided to narrow the colourscape of the music and just use one type of the music, which is Angolese music from the '70s – it was the most melancholic and beautiful and touching Afrobeat music I had ever heard and I was so pleased and relieved at the same time when the record label allowed to give us the rights at a price that we could afford.

I should tell you – I came out of a screening and sourced one of the songs on iTunes… so I've got it on my iPhone...

Wow, really? [laughing]

Yes, I did. From the 'Soul of Angola'…

Wow, that's really cool. Small world. I'm glad you could get it. Thank you.

With the extraordinary journey that the film has had now, from Berlin, to the Oscar nomination and what might still come… what are your reflections on this experience?

If I pitched a film project to a producer and I said, 'Okay, I've got this idea for a film about a girl who sleeps in the streets of Kinshasa. A Canadian crew goes and casts her, gives her a role …yada yada… it makes it to Berlin, where she gets a Silver Bear handed to her by Jake Gyllenhaal …yada yada … then walks on the red carpet at the Oscars…', You know the producer would probably say either I'm stupid or an idiot or I'm a complete psychopath because that story's really bad and not credible at all. It's completely unrealistic and yet that's what happened to Rachel and there's not much more I can say about that. It's truly amazing and she owes it all to herself and to her strength and her resilience and her dignity. That's the best part of the journey after the film. It's the film after the film.

For me, one really cool thing I did yesterday that's, like, more down to earth, was that I bought a GPS in LA and I typed 'Mulholland Drive', because I love the film, and I was by myself. It was pretty crazy – everyone left earlier than me, I had a couple of interviews to do so, at that moment yesterday I had to cool off and drive on Mulholland Drive and guess what, a deer passed in front of me. While I was in Beverly Hills! Isn't that crazy?!

Was that more or less surreal than being at the Oscars this week?

I'm not sure, to tell you the truth. [laughing]

And so what's next for you, workwise?

I have two films that are almost in completion and we're in packaging and casting mode: The first one is called The Origin of the World – it's the story of three ordinary women in extraordinary circumstances. One is set in America, India and the Middle East. The other project is from the master of magic realism, a very loose adaptation of a fiction called Dead Souls. Basically, it's the story of peasants in 19th century who moved to America and they get caught up in this huge private land owned by a landlord. I guess in a way it is a tale of 21st century America.

And Rachel?

She is interested in acting but the first part of getting her to keep her career in movies is to make sure she perfects her reading and writing skills – that's what she has been doing for the past two years. She's been in a reinsertion program that we established from the moment we started the film. She still has about two or three years of that to go. The first year was pretty rough – there was a lot of adaptation, a lot or reengineering of her ideas, but now she is with a new caretaker and has private tutor and she has done quantum leaps and made immense progress in the last year.


Rebelle (War Witch)
is now in limited release Australian cinemas, through Curious Films.