A teenage girl enslaved to a life of guerrilla warfare in the African jungle finds hope for survival in protective, ghost-like visions and with a fellow soldier named Magician.

A soulful insight into Congolese child soldiers.

MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Rachel Mwanza is remorse personified, in Kim Nguyen’s engrossing account of a child soldier enduring a three year-ordeal. The newcomer’s face is awash with glum torment as she portrays a reluctant mercenary striving to make amends for the years and lives lost to indentured brutality.

A new benchmark for a first-person account of the casualties of war

A Congolese warlord’s army seizes 12-year-old Komona (Mwanza) in a scorched earth snatch-and-grab of her fishing village’s youngsters; its commander forcibly inducts her as a rebel by making her shoot her own parents to spare them an even worse fate. She and her fellow pre-teen recruits are taken into the jungle, beaten into submission, and presented with Kalishnikovs ("This is your father and mother now") to serve the Great Tiger’s rebellion on government forces.

At rest, the rebels sip 'Magic milk’, an intoxicating tree sap that unseats Komona’s sixth sense; in her drugged, depressed state she sights ghosts in the jungle that warn of impending attack. Her uncanny knack for survival in the face of certain death earns her a special dispensation as Great Tiger’s 'war witch'.

She befriends an albino captive she dubs The Magician, who points out that her elevated position in the rebel army is temporary; when her gift expires, so will she. But whatever faith she has in the longevity of her witchcraft is outweighed by Great Tiger’s, and his minions actively discourage the sweethearts’ thoughts of escape.

Komona’s trials are recalled in voice-over, as a battle-scarred mother’s confessions to her unborn child. Haltingly, she recounts her actions over the last three years, paraphrasing the worst atrocities for which no words could suffice. (For a film about brutality, there is very little blood spilt on screen.)

The now-14 year-old debates the merits of drowning the unwanted child on sight; it might help erase the circumstances of its conception, but risks adding another ghost to the swelling ranks that visit her nightly (which she estimates to number more than the hairs on her head). With her swelling tummy forcing her to confront her own premature maturity, resilient Komona undertakes to bury the past to achieve salvation.

Canadian Nguyen spent 10 years developing the story, having obtained the testimony of many of Kinshasa’s ex-child soldiers. He achieved the film’s outstanding natural performances by shooting chronologically, and releasing the script to the actors in increments. (A technique he adopted after admiring Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank.) The bipolar mood and magic of Komona’s tour of duty is enhanced by mid-century rhythms from the heyday of Angolan soul and Congolese guitar pop.

War Witch sets a new benchmark for a first-person account of the casualties of war, pairing the fantasy of magical realism with the unspeakably bleak real-world predicament of the child soldier. With intelligence and deceptive simplicity, Nguyen injects the discombobulating impact of grief, conflict and PTSD (with the added effects of magic milk), to delve deeper than a simple observed account of a soldier’s bid for freedom.

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Watch War Witch at SBS On Demand 


Rebelle / War Witch: Kim Nguyen interview
The Canadian-Vietnamese writer-director reveals the long journey of his Oscar-nominated film, from researching child soldiers to finding Mobutu’s private palace.

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1 hour 30 min