War Witch (2012) – Ken Nguyen

Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of War Witch (2012), a searing portrait of a young girl forced into guerrilla warfare in Sub-Saharan Africa, is its hero’s casual acceptance of the things around her. The movie tells the story of Komona (Rachel Mwanza) who will be raped, impregnated, forced to murder her parents, watch countless people die, and learn to want to do some killing for herself, all before her fourteenth birthday. But, outside of a few understandable moments of human despair, she hardly has the time to reflect on the remarkably terrible things that are happening to her, adopting a robot-like focus on staying alive. Worse, she regards these things as mere bad luck, suggesting that in her world children are frequently snatched from their families and forced into armed rebellion, and so when it happens to her, she treats it like any other uncontrollable certainty, as if her kidnapping and abuse are akin to taxes going up.

The movie tells of Komona’s 12th, 13th and 14th years as she is ripped from her village by the rebels of Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), whose political ambitions seem to include only his own glory. Komona’s test to join the rebels is to shoot her own parents; the price of failing is her life. Komona spends the rest of her pre-teen days traveling the jungle carrying heavy artillery and learning to “cry on the inside” as she puts it (the movie is narrated by an older Komona [Diane Uwamahoro] who is telling her story to her future child), because to show external weakness is punished severely, as we learn when Komona slips in the mud. In her 13th year, things improve in a way. The rebels drink hallucinogenic milk from trees and the effect on Komona allows her to see the dead, a skill which helps her warn the others of ambushes. This propels her into Great Tiger’s inner circle as he anoints her as her “War Witch” and won’t undertake any maneuver without her counsel. Though less physically demanding, Komona finds that being in Great Tiger’s confidence is hardly more tender and she is raped with regularity and discovers she’s pregnant.

Following a gruesome battle, Komona finds herself and two other child soldiers as the only survivors, and one of them, Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), sees this as an opportunity to get out of the pointless murdering business and invites Komona to come join him. As the baby grows, Komona and Magicien remain on the run and fall into what could be defined as love if the two weren’t so deprived of examples of the real thing. They certainly find in each other a respite from the cruelness of war until Great Tiger catches up with them, Magicien is killed and Komona returned to her post.

This is a powerful movie by Kim Nguyen, a Canadian filmmaker, who uses restraint and understatement to strengthen his tale. It’s hard not to think of Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012) while watching War Witch, another movie with a devastating performance from a young female lead at its center that uses the mystical imagination of youth as a safeguard against ugliness that can’t be controlled. Like Beasts, War Witch avoids being heavy handed and allows a sensitive portrayal of suffering youth to be its message (or worse in War Witch’s case, youth for which suffering is common place).

My mind also returned to Piranha 3DD (2012), a less pleasant excursion down memory lane. The wonderful thing about movies is that any element in one has probably been done better or worse in another. In 2012, I saw two movies in which dangerous objects found their way into women’s vaginas, to be discovered, unceremoniously, by the next male visitors. In Piranha 3DD, in a symphony of base poor taste, a mutant biting fish swims into a skinny-dipping coed and lies in wait, unnoticed, until the coed’s next sexual encounter, when the fish trains its jaws on her boyfriend’s member. In War Witch we have a quiet scene of Komona inserting into herself a piece of orange with a razor blade in it to protect herself from the rapist who visits her bed nightly. The difference between the two renderings of similar ideas is all the difference. One is meant to shock with its audacity and devotion to low humor and misogyny; the other shocks because it displays a terrible fact that anyone, let alone a 13-year-old girl, would have to think of and execute such an act.

The violence in War Witch is heart rendering but it can’t be called gratuitous. In fact, Nguyen’s restraint is one of the film’s great strengths, creating a tasteful but harrowing story that doesn’t pull punches even if it mercifully chooses to pull the camera away when things get really bad. It places us face to face with Komona’s plight but it’s not shoving our faces in it. The movie’s first third, which shows Komona’s kidnapping and induction into the militia, quickly brings us to her level of desensitivity (credit Mwanza, only 15, and her iron but human performance as well), and by the time of her pseudo-courtship with Magicien we are so starved for loveliness that theirs, which is never without the ugliness of automatic weapons, makes do quite nicely.

Magicien asks Komona to marry him, and she replies that she won’t consider it without a white rooster, which is a traditional gift in her family from a groom. This requirement is mainly to scare off uncommitted suitors, as white roosters are incredibly difficult to find, something Magicien, who scours villages and farms for one, discovers. This moment of levity is like a burst of rain after a drought, even if it is short-lived and, in retrospect, the couple’s energy would have been better spent getting farther and farther away from their pursuers. But that, among other things, is what Komona is robbed of: the human right to impracticality, to family and tradition, to something other than mere survival.

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