African nightmare: Kim Nguyen's Oscar-nominated 'War Witch' dramatizes struggle of a child soldier


Love, aka Amour, may be in the air as frontrunner for the Best Foreign-Language Oscar, but don’t discount Canada’s much buzzed-about nominee and critics’ darling War Witch, the story of a female teen kidnapped by rebels in an unnamed war-torn African country and turned into a child soldier who kills. Directed by Montreal-based Kim Nguyen, this fierce and challenging drama will soon be available on demand and in theatres from Tribeca Film, in partnership with American Express. It already boasts awards and enthusiastic word of mouth from important festivals like Berlin, Tribeca, Toronto and the Hamptons.

Yes, Amour, like love, may conquer all and War Witch, lensed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and shot mostly in the local Lingala language, might have confused Academy voters with its Canadian roots—much like Canada’s brutal and brilliant Incendies, a 2010 foreign-language Oscar hopeful shot largely in the Middle East in Arabic.

And, yes, War Witch, inspired by true events, is as harrowing as it is thrilling to watch. Nguyen follows the rebels’ abduction of 12-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) from her tiny village where, as brutal initiation, she is forced to execute her own parents. Her training is grueling, and she is always hungry. But as a child soldier, she soon begins seeing gray ghosts in the trees, be they her parents or hovering enemies of the bush. And she miraculously survives an assault that wipes out other soldiers.

Komona’s gifts change her life, not necessarily for the better. The supreme rebel leader pronounces her a sorceress with great powers and bestows special treatment. Komona eventually falls in love with a fellow child soldier, an albino named Magicien (played impressively by Serge Kanyinda). But her apparent loss of supernatural powers sends the couple fleeing.

Komona agrees to marry Magicien only if he finds and captures a rare white rooster. This task provides an amusing respite from so much horror, as does Komona’s joy at finding love and experiencing occasional signs of kindness from villagers, including Magicien’s butcher uncle and his wife. But horrors expected and unforeseen dominate this violent environment, including a rape that leaves Komona pregnant. Mercifully, the ending provides a faint glimmer of hope. Maybe.

The graphic material aside, what has had most early War Witch viewers talking is Mwanza’s unbelievably natural and convincing performance, which won her the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival. She appears comfortable in front of the camera despite such difficult scenes. Prior to War Witch, she sparked some attention for her role in the ensemble Belgian doc-fiction hybrid Kinshasa Kids, which was shot before War Witch and shown last fall at the New York Film Festival. (Mwanza was not reachable for an interview because, as a spokesperson for the film explained, phone connections to Kinshasa are difficult. And while she can speak some French, she cannot, except for a few words, write in French, so e-mail is out of the question.)

Nguyen hails this “girl from the streets,” now only in her mid-teens, as a “raw, natural talent as an actress.” He explains that he had heard about her from her role in Kinshasa Kids but still has not seen it. “When we were casting in the DRC, we had someone on our team who knew about her from that film. So we sent some local people scouting. We gave them cameras and got them to find her and we had an exceptional encounter.”

During pre-production and the shoot, Nguyen communicated with Mwanza in French, of which she understood perhaps 40 or 50% of what he said. Her character speaks Lingala, yet War Witch effectively uses the character’s voiceover—speaking in French—to frame the story. Nguyen says that he tried using Rachel’s voice speaking French but she didn’t quite make the mark, although “the soul in her voice was recorded.” That quality proved invaluable when, back in Montreal, he found a non-pro Rwandese girl to fill in for Mwanza for the French narration.

Prior to War Witch, Nguyen’s three previous features included the 2002 Le Marais (The Marsh), a dramatic fantasy about two outcasts living in 19th-century Eastern Europe; Truffe, a futuristic comedy-drama about a working-class neighborhood of Montreal becoming a world-renowned truffle center; and the more recent La Cité (City of Shadows), with French star Jean-Marc Barr as a doctor bruised by a long North African war and having to deal with a city afflicted by the plague.

With a habit of scouring news on the Web, Nguyen began writing War Witch about ten years ago, after being inspired by a news headline and story he found that sent him researching more about child soldiers and magic. He started writing and knew at the outset that he would have to shoot in Kinshasa, the dreary, distressed capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

His previous films are as far from War Witch and its civil wars and child soldiers as Montreal is from Central Africa. “Yes, my films are all very different,” the director agrees, “and I did consider this. So I was kind of relieved when I saw [Francis Ford] Coppola’s Dementia 13, which is so different from what he went on to do. I was also feeling insecure because there were flaws in my early pictures. What enabled me to take a next step was to accept the possibility of failure, be willing to scrape my knees and take risks. With co-production deals and producers in the mix [on previous films], you can lose yourself, so I just followed my gut instinct [with War Witch].”

Gut triumphed. So how does Nguyen feel about the Oscar nomination and his much-coveted validation? “There’s you, a screen and the Oscars always happening on the other side of that screen. Then you seep through the screen and you are there. Berlin was the first big thing for me initially, but this Oscar recognition is overwhelming. It also means you get more attention from people in Hollywood.”

The script for War Witch is largely in the Lingala language (with a smattering of French because the area is the former Belgian Congo). Nguyen says Lingala is a strange and hard language to understand. “We did write out all of the dialogue and voiceover in French, but I guided my [largely non-French speaking actors] in improvisations, throwing them into that process and shot in chronological order. And what they say is really close to what we wrote.”

Mwanza’s Komona goes through all kinds of ordeals, including impregnation by a war lord. She appears pregnant, but Nguyen explains the deception: “We used some computer tricks and a double for her as pregnant but were helped by a lucky circumstance. Because she came from the streets, all the food we had for cast and crew was so special for her, and she ate a lot. Because we shot in sequence, the weight she put on really worked in our favor.”

The most challenging part of the shoot, Nguyen notes, was the location and logistics of shooting. “But it was a joy being there, to capture that authenticity and that’s what I was after. Of course, you may think as you’re shooting that you have something great, but the rushes can tell you otherwise because it is so hard to get what’s good and authentic. So you really have to concentrate every second.”

In so impoverished and violence-torn a region, did Nguyen encounter any dangerous situations? “A funny thing happened,” he recalls. “Early in the shoot, we were about to use blank bullets for a sequence and put alert ads on local TV that viewers would hear bullets but they’re from Canadian filmmakers and not rebels. But when we actually did the scene, we noticed a cloud of dust from the forest that got bigger and bigger, and behind this dust were about ten armed vehicles and maybe 50 soldiers with AK-47 machine guns. It was the official army heading toward us, but our logistics guy jumped right in and spoke with them.”

Like the DRC locale, Nguyen wanted to add other exotic aspects that would enrich the film’s story and look and maybe counter some of the horror and suffering on view. Influenced by local customs already in place, he came up with the “total invention” of “magic milk” that the child warriors and their violent handlers memorably draw from the bush and drink for strength. “But the principle [behind the drink] is true, as people chew actual plant roots for nutrition.” Also invented and in the name of exotica and visual interest, Nguyen contrives a custom concerning the need to find a white rooster that the Magicien must obtain for Komona to marry him.

In line with the region’s beliefs in the supernatural, including witches both good and bad, and with his visual focus, Nguyen delivers scenes in which Komona, believed by certain captors to be a witch, sees ghosts of both her dead parents and the enemy.

Beyond customs and beliefs learned on location, Nguyen says he also gained insights from some of his native actors. “The man who plays one of the key roles as a rebel sergeant, the one with the scar on his neck and who teaches the children how to be soldiers, had been a real-life sergeant in the war. He provided me with a kind of breakthrough for the script by making me realize that we had to tread in a gray zone that’s not so black-and-white. Yes, we depict evil warrior leaders, but they can reveal occasional elements of charisma because they are human.”

The actual politics of this conflicted region were more elusive. Nguyen shot in the troubled Democratic Republic of the Congo but set his story somewhere unspecified in sub-Saharan Africa. He resists getting into hard-core politics and the ethics of war. Asked who are the good guys, the government or the rebels, he responds, “Good question. In the end we are confused and the point of the film is you don’t know anymore.”

It also doesn’t help that, as he puts it, “it’s hard to tell who’s actually running the country [in the actual Democratic Republic of the Congo]. There’s chaos and disorganization and no communication between areas. But I can say that the mining resources of the country, which are comparable to the U.S. and Europe combined, are also a huge source of conflict.”

He does acknowledge the paradox of Kinshasa, where much of the Belgian culture and French language remain amidst so much violent chaos. “We entered into a parallel world, a universe that is at the very boundary between real and surreal, in constant mutation, filled with extremely powerful paradoxes.”

He characterizes these contrasts as “a rebellion against so many precise 90-degree angles that have everything in our lives standardized as if IKEA-ized. Kinshasa feeds your imagination. You go there and it’s a breath of fresh air to be there. Social codes are reinvented in order to survive and there you find a clash between traditional, modern and post-modern. Houses are there that you see in the beginning of the film and that are so amazing and unexpected they are worthy of attention from something like the Museum of Modern Art.”

In addition to the well-structured story, fine acting and fascinating locale, the impact of War Witch is deepened by a camera style that reflects Nguyen’s preference for close-ups and fluidity. The former puts viewers at the heart of the characters’ powerful emotions. The fluid but nervous camera capture for the often tense action scenes and anxiety over what lurks ahead creates another kind of immediacy.

Nguyen says the cinematographic style, realized by DP Nicolas Bolduc’s immersive approach with the Arri Alexa camera, stems from his early but radically modified fixation with being in a far-flung locale and believing that wide angles had value. Acknowledging the virtues of his DRC locations, he explains, “We saw some amazing establishing shots and wide angles in the rushes, but they were just outside my narrative approach, the point of view I sought… I wanted this film to break away from my former films and wanted to shoot scenes as if there had never been a before; nor was there to be an after. As though only the present moment, the immediacy was real.” To achieve this, “my actors were not allowed to read the screenplay before the shoot, and we shot the film in sequence. In this way, the actors never knew what was going to happen to their characters the next day.”

One of the biggest lessons Nguyen learned from War Witch was that “you can storyboard so many shots, but in the end you’ve got to get those performances that make it all authentic. Everything, every scene, must be authentic, so you can throw away storyboard as long as you get the authenticity.”

So what might Nguyen have in mind for his next film now that Hollywood and indie producers are paying attention? He replies, “Well, it’s early, but I have a few ideas. I wrote a script about Alan Turing [the famous mathematician] and one tentatively titled Lucienne, set in this century about Inuit young adults in love but very isolated. I also have a script—maybe I’ll call it The Origin of the World—that comprises three stories with such elements as a non-virginal geisha, an Indian and an ex-cougar who is trying to win back her old lover. But it’s a little early to know what might interest Hollywood or what I’ll be doing.” Nguyen is clearly all over the map in many ways.

As for War Witch, so rich in cinematic elements and empowered by a focus on immediacy and authenticity, might Nguyen also cite a message lurking beneath its craftsmanship? “Three words come to mind,” he quickly answers, “which are war, love and resilience.”