War Witch is a rightfully involving, if slightly familiar African dispatch from Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen. It has already earned itself a best foreign language film nomination at this year’s Academy Awards and represents a bold new Canadian voice in director Kim Nguyen. The film follows 14-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza), who as the story begins tells her unborn child inside of her the story of her life since she was abducted by the rebel army at the age of 12. As endless wars in Africa wage on, War Witch succeeds in presenting an apt and lyrical depiction of feminine strength and survival. The narrative often sidesteps melodrama in favor of a flickering search for hope in a country ravaged by its own homegrown savagery.
While captured, Komona and her fellow captors (all around the same age) are told to respect their guns and to view them as a mother and father. This type of barbaric governing begins to seep into the pores of Komona and her imprisoned makeup as she’s forced to routinely kill, often with a flood of tears streaming down her cheek. The children’s minds are trained with Jean-Claude Van Damme movies that depict frivolous violence and execution, though Komona remains ambivalent and removed from her peers’ forced lust for such behavior. After drinking an intoxicant referred to as “magic milk,” Komona sees a vision of her dead parents in which they warn her of oncoming danger. She manages to outlast all those from her village in a shootout with the government, granting her the film’s titular title. The film sports a poppy soundtrack that blends well with Komona’s entranced and helpless position, a plight only worsened when she’s sent by her generals to meet supreme rebel leader Great Tiger to become his war witch, a throwaway title viewed as a reward that often reaps tragic results. Komona eventually flees the rebels’ occupied jungle with an older albino soldier who calls himself Magicien, played by Serge Kanyinda. The two’s short lived romance offers a tender detour from the prior butchery on display as Magicien’s search for a white rooster proves to be quite the humorous endeavor; it serves as a laborious rite of passage passed down by Komona’s father that would all but solidify Magicien as her husband.
The film is very much about the scars and wounds of a country reeling from civil war and constant bloodshed. Here, the sprawling nature of such ongoing tragedy is flattened to a very personal degree. While there is a very general moral commentary on display, the narrative unwinds and even begins to shrink as it’s based around the subjective point of view of Komona. Though the violent trek she makes from soldier to mother is hardly unique, its resiliency is reflected by the brave performance from the nonprofessional Mwanza. The most harrowing element is the crucial voice our protagonist is equipped with, as her inner dialogue and narration seems plucked from the same world as past Malick female protagonists. While Nguyen isn’t as interested in Komona’s relationship with nature, there’s a swell of internal conflict that adds a much needed dimension to her uniquely detached performance. Komona’s fate is often dictated by ghosts and spirits, a guiding force which she struggles to find peace with (which in turn operates as her fleeting strength towards solace and hope). The relentless domineering she’s faced with is combated with an appropriate wherewithal that speaks to her fledgling pursuit of life’s glowing uncertainty. War Witch could have been another rote illustration of African dismay, but Nguyen’s rendering of youth resiliency is novel enough to succeed, making him a name to look out for in the future. As Komona’s harsh journey comes to a halt, a brief exhale and moment of rest translates into a transcendent closing prayer for peace.
— Ty Landis