"War Witch" Casts a Dramatic Spell

After much international acclaim and an Academy Awards nomination, the French-language film bows domestically.

By Scott Huver
|  Friday, Mar 8, 2013  |  Updated 3:09 PM EDT
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Rachel Mwanza (l.) in "War Witch"

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Having been named one of the Academy Awards’ five nominees for Best Foreign Film, it’s clear that “War Witch” casts a powerful spell.

The Canadian film from director Kim Nguyen – also known by the French title “Rebelle” – follows Komona, a young girl conscripted as a child soldier in Sub-Saharan Africa who is believed to be a witch after surviving the massacre of her village, and who experiences a poignant love for a fellow soldier.

Featuring a powerful performance by Rachel Mwanza, a teenager who was herself a street child in the Congo city of Kinshasa, the film has been celebrated around the world: it competed for the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival, and Nguyen’s direction and Mwanza’s performance collected accolades and nominations across the festival and critics’ circuit before arriving at the Oscars.

Fresh off their experience at Hollywood’s glitziest awards ceremony, Nguyen and Mwanza caught their breath in a modest Beverly Hills hotel suite as they readied the film for a limited release in the US, where Nguyen recounted their journey (serving as a translator for Mwanza, who speaks French) from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the Academy Awards.

What was it like attending the Oscars?

Honestly, I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy it as much as I did. It's still a blur. I would say that the Lynchian moments were arriving and leaving in the limos. There's like this four-lane street. I hope I am going to be able to use it in a film, just that frame when you just see four lanes of limos, and you got these people with speakers that are dressed like 1940s clerks, and they are yelling: ‘Limo 232! Twenty seconds to go!’ ‘Limo 446! Limo 446 – ten seconds! Okay, limo 446 – next round.’ And the limo goes around, and you’ve got this huge road full of limos and people walking, and so much surgery. Amazing moment.

Rachel said that it was when we walked down the red carpet. They told us to come early, but they gave us a time, and it was really too early. We were the first ones to arrive on the red carpet. So the one thing that she liked the most was being around the big statue and taking the pictures. And the one thing she was sad about was that she saw Harry Potter – Daniel Radcliffe – but she didn't get to meet him. There were too many people around.

How did this concept of child soldiers crystallize into this particular story that you wanted to tell?

I did extensive research with child soldiers, the lives of child soldiers. I visited Sub-Saharan Africa, and all of these images were there without an actual structure, and at a certain point things started pulling together. There was like these three things, three realities, that superimpose on each other. And each had its own translucency, and that was the war elements of a child soldier, a very naïve love story, and just post modern 21st century Sub-Saharan Africa. In a way, that's what the story is: all of these three things at the same time kind of bounce back and echo each other.



Throughout the movie, it's jarring to see how much a belief in the mystical drives their actions, and yet here they are also toting high-tech weaponry that can annihilate a village.

That's the weirdest thing: the magic is all there. The magic beliefs and how they influence everyday life. What's really hard to believe in North America is that the magic elements that I put in the film are just the tip of the iceberg. There's so many things relating to magic, and how if somebody’s car breaks down it's because an evil child touched it. 

One of the only differences between the belief in magic there and here is that here it's been incorporated into our market. It's been exploited in a way to motivate the consumer to buy things. Creams will make you eternal. Buy a cola and you'll become a star. It's just the same, except it’s been focused differently. And unfortunately in the Congo, when you get the situation of child soldiers, these magical beliefs are twisted to indoctrinate children to make war, to fight against evil enemies.

Tell us about challenging yourself by not having this thing too structured, and letting scenes kind of happen the way they happen.

That's the way I want to make films. That's the way I lead my life. I feel that my life is a little bit more like skidding – I don't make proper turns. That's what I like. They're more fun, skidded turns. So when I did films I pitched things that are impossible to do, like going into Congo. All of my films are a little bit challenging for producers: ‘Really, you want to do THAT?’ That's what I like about it. It's scary to do that. In a way, that's the analogy for this film. You kind of let go and, in a way, the real train tracks are life itself, that grasp you and let you skid in an inelegant way, but you got to let go.

What has all the Hollywood attention done for you both?

I think in the case of Rachel, I'm happy about this: I listened to what's been happening in Kinshasa with her recently, and a year ago or two years ago after the film what she really wanted was to become a star. I kept pounding things like ‘Still learn another trade’ and stuff like that. And she hated Uncle Kim for that – you know, still a teenager. But I am really happy because on the last day she's been telling me that she wants to do something else that is just as beautiful as becoming a star. She's saying that she wants to create a foundation for kids on the streets in Congo, and I think that could be much more rewarding. She's still not there yet to appreciate the depth of a character in French, so she’s learning English. There's still at least four of five years of her learning before she can appreciate a script and work in the way that actors work in this standardized industry. If people would want to work with her now, she would have to use the same process as I did - and not everybody likes organized chaos.

And for you?

I really liked getting a taste of what the Hollywood and the industry scene is, and it's really interesting because a lot of the things are very different from what I expected. I was lucky to be guided to persons that are really creative and have a nice sense of what good scripts are about. I think that the really strong element of Hollywood and the US in general is being able to generate amazing writers and amazing actors. I think that the drawback from working in the Hollywood business is that more and more you get a sense that – I'm kind of quoting producers – it's more and more guided by huge multinationals that are with investors on the stock market, that are expecting revenue, and a return on their investment. And organized chaos and creativity and risks are very difficultly explainable in financial terms. There's kind of this clash between producers and investors. There's a risk of things becoming diluted, and then sometimes something amazing turns up.

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