War Witch, a film nominated for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, takes a page from the novelist Garcia Marquez to breathe life into the magic that dwells in the mind of a teenage girl caught in the nightmare of a sub-Saharan civil war.
The horrors of war shatter our protagonist, Komona (Rachel Mwanza), early in the film. Rebels raid her village, capture her parents, and tell her to shoot them with an AK-47. When she refuses, the rebels threaten to hack her parents up with machetes.
What does our girl do? What her parents tell her. With tears in her eyes, she minimizes their suffering.
Written and directed by Kim Nguyen, War Witch is structured so that it focuses on each of Komona’s early teen years. While twelve is a year of slaughter, discovery, love and adventure, thirteen is one of pain, struggle and rebirth. Converging somewhat messily — at time losing their dramatic energy — the years form a cinematic panel portrait of a childhood militated by war but sewn up by imagination and the desire to be human — to be a woman, a lover, a mother.
After being abducted by the rebels, Komona becomes a child solider. After boot camp, the rebels give her a rifle, telling her: “Respect your gun. It’s your mother and father.” After being born again into this family, the rebels give her a religious experience by making her drink hallucinogenic sap known as “magic milk.”
The sap allows Komona to tap into another realm. Or it makes her imagination flower, perhaps. Either way, we watch as she sees the jungle fill with ghosts of people felled by the war, including her parents.
These ghosts, to Nguyen’s great credit, aren’t some threadbare CGI apparitions. They’re actors, naked but for a dusting of white on their skin. Even their eyes are caked in a chalky substance, forming eerie blank orbs. As we watch the ghosts haunt battlefields and tree canopies, they appear both harrowing and beautiful. To Komona, they offer purpose, or the promise of it. To us, they seem to be incarnations of war’s invisible injuries.
The movie’s title (War Witch) stems for a name given to Komona by the rebels, who come to see her as a sage on the battlefield after the ghosts warn her of an ambush. What tactical advantage she provides isn’t all that clear, but there’s no doubt the rebels believe in her power. Moreover, the entire culture believes in witchcraft to such a degree that it forces us to see items of industrial culture — like machine guns — differently.
For instance: There’s a scene where the rebel leader gives his war witch a “magic” AK-47. The gun’s wood is adorned with special carvings, and it’s hard not to think of it as though it were a sword in “World of Warcraft” or “Skyrim.” Put differently: There’s considerable culture shock in seeing mass produced weapons treated as powerful relics. It’s fantasy meets modern warfare, and the results on screen can be equally mesmerizing and unsettling.
As far as the story goes, this review only touches the surface. The initial tragedy of the deaths of our girl’s parent is followed by many others, including Komona’s becoming pregnant while held as a sex slave. But there’s also a love story, which adds an entirely different tone to the film, as well as our girl’s quest to make peace with her parents’ ghosts. And on top of these relatively uplifting items is the music. Dear Lord, War Witch has gorgeous, gorgeous African music.
War Witch is playing at St. Anthony Main.