‘War Witch’ opens at the Music Box Theater on Friday, March 22nd.
Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (Rebelle) (Canada, 2012) is a tragic but hopeful love story; in the face of urgently dire circumstances and harrowing personal ordeals, two disparate people come together, find love, and try to disengage from the darkness to create a world of their own. Reality, however, won’t cooperate, and the two endure another tragic setback. The film ends with one of the lovers setting off into the world on their own, into an uncertain future that we, nonetheless, are hopeful about, having been convinced of their elemental goodness, resiliency and hard-won sense of self.
This little synopsis could be used to describe tens, maybe hundreds, of filmed love stories. What makes this one different from the others is the extremity of its context. Our two lovers are barely teenagers, yet they have been kidnapped from their families to serve in one of the revolutionary child-armies that have maliciously plagued sub-Saharan Africa over the last twenty or thirty years. The list of African insurgencies that use children as soldiers, assassins, and sex-slaves is truly staggering. Charles Taylor’s various insurgencies in Liberia (throughout the nineties and early 2Ks) used abducted child soldiers often; he was eventually deposed by forces from Guinea, Cote D’Ivoire and Sierra Leone, who, ironically, accused Taylor of war crimes while using those same child-exploiting tactics themselves; in Uganda, southern Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, anti-nationalist warlords in Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army abducted and trained over 30,000 children as soldiers; in 2002, almost eight years after the 1994 Rwandan genocides (at least 500,000 killed in about thirty days), Rwanda’s government forces used children in clashes with the DRC; Sierra Leone’s Civil War (1991-2002) featured a unit of the RUF (Revolutionary United Front) called the Small Boys Unit, all pre-teen and teenaged boys who were responsible for particularly savage atrocities – rape, torture and mutilation (they specialized in turning families against each other, forcing family members to rape and kill each other). The RUF’s main supporter in money, resources, strategy and philosophy? Liberia’s Charles Taylor. Burundi, Chad, Somalia, Zimbabwe, the list goes on, and doesn't even start to include recruited (i.e., abducted) child soldiers in Asia, or the Middle East, or during the various ethnic clashes in the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
In War Witch, the rebel army invades the village of our 12-year-old the main character, Komona (Rachel Mwanza) within the first minutes of the film, and her first act as a reluctant soldier is to kill her own parents (sparing them from a far more grisly fate). And as harrowing as Komona’s experiences are in the first half-hour of the film, which chronicles her assimilation into the ‘Great Tiger’ rebel army, Nguyen does an admirable job of presenting the underlying humanity beneath the engines of atrocity; the reliance on spiritual guidance and ritual, the sharing of meager resources, soldiers of higher rank covering for their less-experienced fellow fighters. They don’t have, nor are they given, a clue as to what they’re actually fighting for. Eventually Komona fosters a friendship with Magician (Serge Kanyinda); as one of the unit leaders, he’s a hardened taskmaster, but he’s also deeply spiritual, fashioning talismans, charms and grigri for others, to help the spirits to protect them. Komona, in her ongoing trauma, starts hallucinating ghosts, of her parents and her other victims, and her visions translate into a kind of radar – following her ghosts makes her hyper-aware of the movements and advances of their nationalist enemies, and her fellow soldiers declare her to be a witch for her battlefield prescience.
Komona and Magician’s shared affinities make them kindred souls, and they break off from the Great Tiger Army in an attempt to build their own lives, away from the violence and death. And it’s here that Nguyen’s film starts the slippery slide into formulaic melodrama. It’s very well done formulaic melodrama, but the cracks in Nguyen’s narrative conception start to show; after having committed to the challenge of such confrontational subject matter (Child soldiers in Africa? Who would want to watch a movie about that? You, and here’s why…), he runs out of things to say (or show us) about it pretty quickly. The ‘second-act’ romance of Komona and Magician is an engaging episode – they’re terrific young characters, and the culture they’re now a part of is as fascinating, in its own way, as the crucible-culture they've managed to escape. But when the rebels find them again to express their displeasure, it feels more like a device than an inevitable consequence, and I couldn’t help feel that the subsequent events of the film felt far more like westernized heart-tugging wish-fulfillment than anything that would have realistically or organically followed from what we’d witnessed previously.
The first half of the film is genuinely compelling – Nguyen’s intentions here, to engage an otherwise disagreeable subject with some real documentary-style homework and empathy, are honorable. But once he’s brought up the big, difficult questions, he bails on them in favor of a later narrative that’s far more invested in rewarding the audience for sticking with him this far than exploring the larger, equally gnarly issues that led to these circumstances in the first place.