War Witch (Day 71)

War Witch -- Poster

My Opinion: 7.9 || Powerful subject matter that’s handled well, even if the whole doesn’t quite equal the sum of the parts. The film uses naturalism to excellent effect and never stoops to emotional battery. Unfortunately, despite its many strengths, the story never quite transcends its episodic structure, delivering less insight than it might have.

TITLE: War Witch (Rebelle)
DIRECTOR: Kim Nguyen
LANGUAGE: French and Lingala | COUNTRY: Democratic Republic of Congo (Filmed) / Canada (Produced)
YEAR: 2012
PROFILE: War Drama | 90 minutes | IMDb (7.0)

SYNOPSIS (Courtesy of Netflix): In sub-Saharan Africa, 12-year-old Komona is kidnapped by rebel soldiers who force her to kill her parents and join their ranks. Over the next two years, Komona clings to life despite her horrific experiences and tries to pacify her parents’ ghosts.

Strengths & Weaknesses: When evaluating a movie like this, it’s crucial — but difficult — to separate the inherent power of the subject matter from the actual success of the filmmaking. A director with an ounce of ability will be able to arouse our emotions in a scene that shows a girl being forced to kill her parents. And director Kim Nguyen demonstrates substantial ability with that scene and others — searing moments that are delivered with plainspoken realism and an absence of exploitation. It’s a harrowing, finely wrought film that tells a vital story.

War Witch

Given these significant strengths and the unmistakable integrity of the film, it seems uncharitable to point out shortcomings. And it’s a challenge to do so because the movie’s individual scenes are consistently strong. The hard-to-pin-down difficulty is that the film fails to make its many fine pieces cohere into a powerful whole.

Magic plays an important role in the movie — the phrase “war witch” is meant literally — and the protagonist Komona is plagued by ghosts, which appear as white-painted, milk-eyed undead. Nguyen’s narrative intentions are clear, and there’s every reason why it should work, but it never quite does. The specters are used to good narrative effect, but they’re not as emotionally evocative as they need to be. Not an egregious failing, but it keeps the movie on the ground at moments when Nguyen wants it to fly.

Characters/Performances: The role of Komona is played by Rachel Mwanza, who’s consistently convincing and emotionally direct. Nguyen has called her a “one in a million” actress, though, and I’m not certain that she’s as good as that. (Here again, this feels like an ungenerous critique, given the tremendous difficulty of the role for anyone, let alone an amateur actress.) We identify with Komona strongly, but there’s a nagging sense by the end that we don’t know her as deeply as we might have. It’s a subtle failing, and other viewers may react differently, but I came away feeling that Komona’s experienes were more striking than her character.

War Witch

File Under: Congo, civil war, rape, abduction, parents and children, scars, economic exploitation, magic