‘War Witch’ Takes Aim at Child Soldiering and Oscar

'War Witch' relates the unconscionable violence from the perspective of a teenage killer speaking to her unborn child.

A rare moment of relief in War Witch for the child soldier Komona, a role that earned Best Actress awards for nonprofessional Rachel Mwanza at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals earlier this year. (Photo: Courtesy of Tribeca Film)

Stephen Saito writes about movies for the L.A. Times, IFC.com and his own site, The Moveable Fest.

During the decade it took filmmaker Kim Nguyen to get his passion project, War Witch, off the ground, he read countless articles and reports on the plight of child soldiers. One sentence, written by a former child warrior as part of a rehabilitation program, cut to the core of what the movie War Witch would be.

“One of the things that moved me tremendously was [reading] one of those kids say, ‘We’re not allowed to cry; so we had to learn how to make the tears run from inside, inside our eyes,’ ” Nguyen tells TakePart.

MORE: America, Syria and the State of Child Soldiering 2012

Bet on the film inspired by that remark to pry more than a few tears out of audiences when it’s released in the U.S. in March of next year. Hopefully, that emotional reception will come after a successful bid to place War Witch as one of the five nominees in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 2013 Academy Awards.

The harrowing drama follows one young girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza). Komona is abducted at age 12 and forced to kill her own parents as a sign of loyalty to a group of rebel soldiers in Africa. By the time she is 14, the girl must deal with the prospect of becoming a mother and bringing a child into a world she had no choice of becoming a part of.

Filmmaker Nguyen hopes that if tears are shed, they’ll be accompanied not by a feeling of pity, but by a summoning of courage within ourselves to bring one of the globe’s worst human rights abuses to the forefront.

“We’re kind of nihilistic about Sub-Saharan Africa right now,” Nguyen says. “What I’ve seen through these tragedies is a tremendous sense of resilience [which is something] that we’ve lost with our comfort.”

War Witch aims to push audiences out of their comfort zones. It challenges viewers in terms of what they believe to be true about Sub-Saharan Africa, while capturing their empathy with the undeniably compelling character of Komona. The girl’s inextinguishable inner resolve is crucial to her survival, as is the belief of the rebel soldiers—adopted when she emerges unscathed by a hail of bullets during her training—that Komona has been blessed with magical powers.

A little magic was required to make the movie itself. Nguyen followed his determination to mount the production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, making War Witch the second ever foreign production to be filmed there. The locations lend an authenticity and a very real sense of danger that can be felt throughout the film.

However, the film never specifically identifies the country where the action is taking place. The universality of the theme is a sad testament that unconscionable violence has become a way of life for young children worldwide. In fact, War Witch was initially inspired by stories Nguyen had read about child soldiers in Burma who believed they were honoring God by picking up AK-47s.

Still, Nguyen doesn’t play up the political implications of War Witch beyond what’s on the screen—perhaps because he realizes nothing more needs to be said. Since his film debuted at the Berlin Film Festival in Februrary, and took home a special mention from the Prize of the Ecumenical Jury for its “message of redeeming hope,” War Witch has been opening eyes and winning hearts at festivals around the world.

“With our Twitter world where everything has to be said in 140 characters or less, I find that [making a movie is] not necessarily about giving a message or giving a moral,” says Nguyen. “It’s to the contrary—to bring things into perspective, to put different realities one on top of the other and letting the spectator make their own morality out of that.”

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