When outside forces start shooting a local population, they usually don't ask permission. Especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where ongoing attacks have claimed the most casualties since World War II. But you're part of a film crew, not a rebel army, and your method of capturing children only required a camera, legal consent forms, and resulted in festival-season accolades and awards. It's a nice change of pace. In fact, recruiting non-professional actors is a big reason War Witch (Rebelle, original French title) is one of the most beautiful and chilling films of the year.
It's hard to imagine a more harrowing premise than this: a 14-year-old girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza) explains to her unborn child how she came to be a child soldier: forced to kill her parents, raped into pregnancy, and now looking for the strength to avoid drowning the soon-to-be newborn. If that wasn't enough, her captor keeps her close because he believes she has special powers that helped her be the sole survivor of a battle. Meanwhile, a persecuted albino and rebel ally named Magician (Serge Kanyinda) wants to run off with her. But getting away is a lot more complicated than just signing a release form.
From the opening frames, the tatters of a UNHCR banner tells us that "help" from the outside world has come and gone. Instead, the Congolese now channel voodoo with rocks and rattles to summon relief, barter with totems for personal protection, and follow superstitious beliefs in their pursuit personal goals. Those supernatural elements are rooted in African legend, but are always presented as a seamless expression of a character's emotions. The film, by extension, melds dreams to motivations and nightmares to traumas with stunning effect. As an audience, we're at the mercy of a child's perspective. At times we're caught in a deadly sleepwalk--just like Komona herself experiences. Even though her daily reality is that she's trapped in a jungle army, fighting other innocents for food, her most painful prison is clearly psychological.
War Witch also proves that writer and director Kim Nguyen is one of the most wonderfully unpredictable voices in Canadian cinema. Certainly a departure from his black and white sci-fi comedy Truffle, _and only superficially similar to his period drama _The City about European combat doctor in North Africa, Nguyen has made exponential progress as a filmmaker. Attention to detail is a particular strength, as he crafts iconic and haunting images that always feel relevant to the story. He also finds an elegant way to handle distasteful material in what might be the most personally punishing rape-revenge scene ever filmed. From the pre-partum depression onwards, Nguyen finds ways for the audience to digest the disturbing material and come out the other side feeling hopeful.
Good thing, because the audience may love the film, but they'd hate to be trapped in this world.