Wednesday, January 1, 2014

2013 Top Ten List #5 War Witch (Rebelle)

WAR WITCH (Rebelle)           A 
Canada  (90 mi)  2012  d:  Kim Nguyen              Official site

There are well over 9 million refugees and otherwise displaced people from conflicts in Africa, where five and a half million have died in the Congo alone since the outbreak of fighting in August 1998, becoming the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II.  If this scale of destruction was in Europe, it would already be called World War III, with the United Nations and world leaders rushing to provide food, doctors, humanitarian aid and various peace plans to help stabilize the region.  But Africa is largely ignored, even though the conflict in one country affects many other neighboring nations that must support a continuing stream of refugees, becoming a world humanitarian crisis that is also largely underfunded.  The vast majority die of non-violent causes such as malaria, malnutrition, diarrhea, and pneumonia, all preventable diseases caused by military conflicts, where nearly half the deaths are children, more than 200,000 women have been raped, where on average some 45,000 continue to die every month, nearly the amount of Americans that died in the Vietnam War.  Shocking figures anywhere else in the world, but in Africa we have all too easily come to accept this ongoing human atrocity.  In fact, the world may actually benefit from this regional destabilization, where powerful, influential nations find it easier to pluck precious resources from a war-torn nation, such as blood diamonds, including the Millennium Star, the second largest ever discovered, where the Congo still exports nearly 10% of the world’s diamonds, the precious commodity people are losing their lives over.  As with most conflicts in Africa, the current situation is likely caused by the lingering aftereffects of colonialism, where as recently as 1961, the Belgium colonial rulers and their longtime financial partner, the United States, imprisoned and executed the first democratically elected leader of the Congo just 12 weeks after the election, Patrice Lumumba, a revolutionary advocate for independence from Belgium, whose government officially apologized in 2002.  The United States remains silent on their participation.  A military puppet was installed, Col. Joseph Desire Mobutu, a corrupt and self-serving opportunist who maintained a brutal reign, receiving military assistance from America under the ruse that it was to prevent a Communist takeover, becoming the second richest leader in the world, behind only the Shah of Iran, another American installed puppet.  Allowing the nation’s resources to be harvested by the world’s richest and most powerful nations left the actual Congolese people destitute and wretchedly impoverished.  That is the legacy of colonialism and the root of most all conflicts in Africa.    

Kinshasa was just a small fishing village located on the Congo River, while now it’s the third largest city in Africa (behind Cairo and Lagos) with 9 million inhabitants, also the second largest French-speaking urban area in the world after Paris, where French continues to be the language of newspapers, schools, and the government, where it could exceed Paris in population within a decade.  Director Kim Nguyen, currently living in Montreal, was born and raised in French-speaking Quebec in Canada to a Vietnamese father who emigrated to Canada in the early 60’s and a French Canadian mother.  Perhaps as a way of getting a better understanding of his own Vietnamese war-torn heritage, Nguyen spent 10 years interviewing many of the child soldiers living in Kinshasa, developing a script based on the firsthand testimony of what they endured, eventually making a film about the unspeakable realities that exist for child soldiers.  This familiar terrain was also explored in Mahamat-Saleh Haroun’s Chad Civil War Trilogy, ABOUNA (2002), Daratt (Dry Season (2006), and 2010 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 A Screaming Man (Un homme qui crie), also Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s Johnny Mad Dog (2008), where a 15-year old boy leads a band of children carrying AK-47 assault rifles during the Sierre Leone civil war crisis.  These are all beautifully shot films that involve the conscription of young children who are kidnapped by heavily armed warlords looking to fortify their ranks and send them off to the front, which is exactly how this film opens in the adrenaline-laced opening few moments.  Nguyen adopted a technique working with child actors inherited from Andrea Arnold in FISH TANK (2009), where she was able to achieve outstanding natural performances from non-professionals by shooting chronologically, releasing only that part of the script needed for each day’s shoot.  The biggest difference in Nguyen’s film is the use of a young female lead character, Rachel Mwanza, where instead of a young male soldier emulating older males, young girls have literally no one to look up to and are easily victimized sexually by other male soldiers. 

While the film was shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo, using some mesmerizing beautiful locations, the country is never named in the film, as it is a fictionalized composite of any African country in turmoil.  The actress Rachel Mwanza was in real life abandoned by her parents at 5 or 6, lived with her grandmother for awhile but ended up living on the streets of Kinshasa, which is where she was living when the director held a public audition.  Mwanza is unforgettable as Komono, winner of the Best Actress at the 2012 Berlin Festival, endlessly tormented by the war, where the film follows her for three years beginning at age 12, a mere child one moment, and in an instant, a knife placed to her throat, she must kill or be killed, where her village is literally wiped out by marauding invaders in a matter of minutes, where what they came for is not money, resources, or food, but more children to fill their ranks, where the younger age makes them easier to brutalize, intimidate, and brainwash, training them to work collectively at the behest of a strong rebel leader that is rarely ever seen, as they are the front line troops.  At first treated like everybody else, Komono is taught the use of an automatic weapon, but what she discovers after drinking what she calls “magic milk, extracted from certain leaves in the forest, is the ability to see and communicate with the spirits of the dead, including her own parents that she was reluctantly forced to shoot back in her village.  This element alters the interior landscape that Komono describes as she narrates, mixing searing realism with a more poetic sensibility, where as the sole survivor of a firefight after being warned by the ghosts to run, the rebel leader, known as the Grand Tigre Royal (aka:  Great Tiger, Mizinga Mwinga), describes her as a “war witch,” believing she has mystical powers and can sense the presence of the enemy.  She becomes the most valuable prized possession among the troops, where anyone causing her harm has to answer to the Great Tiger.  She becomes best friends with an albino soldier known as the Magician (Serge Kanyinda), as he carries with him charms and small pouches of various herbs and roots that offer potent spells.  After they miraculously survive a heavy firefight, just a small handful of ragtag survivors against a vastly superior enemy force, the Magician convinces her that the Great Tiger can’t be trusted and they need to escape. 

A richly complex and profoundly significant film that offers an internally healing message, the entire complexion of the film changes with a journey through the colorful village landscapes populated by ordinary civilians, where they find the Magician’s uncle, a strong and powerful man known as the Butcher (Ralph Prosper), who immediately welcomes them both.  One of the more impactful images of the film is a poster inside the Butcher’s home of Patrice Lumumba hanging on the wall, much like Americans have similar pictures of JFK or Martin Luther King – all dead luminaries.  It’s clear that everyone around them has lost family members and have been harshly affected by the war, still carrying deep-seeded wounds, but the young couple can finally relax enough to start developing feelings for one another, where Mwanza in particular brightens up when the Magician asks her to marry him.  Refusing to budge unless he finds her a white rooster, the mood develops a lighter tone where all the chicken coops are searched to no avail, yet the locals are familiar with the customary marriage ritual, continually teasing the Magician.  It’s here the lush and colorful vegetation, including the most gorgeous driveway ever seen, mixed with a killer musical soundtrack, with selections from the Soul of Angola Anthology 1965-1975, including the soulful ARTUR NUNES - tia - YouTube (3:45) and the hauntingly tranquil Tanga - Eme N'gongo Iami - YouTube (3:54) that simply intoxicate the viewer with the exotic locale of the Congo, where the warmth and local charm of the people rubs off on the young couple who finally get married, with the Magician finally displaying a little flair for magic.  Despite their happiness, she is still haunted by the ghosts of her parents who insist upon a proper burial in their hometown.  The blending of a documentary style realism with myth, superstition, local custom, and warmth all feed into this mesmerizing account of a surrounding nightmare of endless brutality, where the enveloping war just continually sucks innocent people into it.  One of the nicer aspects of the film is Komono’s running dialogue with her unborn child, who at times is her only friend in the world, where she’s forced to stand up for herself for the sake of her child, having to make impossible choices during wartime.  The film has one of the more original birth scenes ever recorded, lovingly etched into the viewer’s memory, where the two of them continue on in the mystifying journey to finally bury the past, much like something seen in a Weerasethakul film where characters are always haunted by ghosts of the past.  While her experience, though harrowing, is also a lyrical journey of survival, and probably not that different from many of the survivors the director interviewed who likely still suffer aftereffects of grief and remorse.  It’s important to note the battle has been raging for over 14 years in the Congo, much of it over control of precious resources, creating an entirely new society of traumatized victims, many of whom will likely never be able to bury the ghosts of the past.  This film is a fitting tribute and poetic requiem for the dead, especially the brilliantly chosen music that seems a fitting way to commune with the lingering spirits. 


Well over a year after filming ended, a United Nations peace plan to stop the war was signed by 11 African countries in February 2013, called the Peace, Security and Cooperation Framework for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.  Known as the Second Congo War, one should note that peace accords were signed in 2003, yet the fighting continued for another decade.  Let’s hope the dramatic power and spiritual uplift from the film finally allows peace to prevail.  

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