Film Review: War Witch

In this startling, hallucinogenic war drama, a 12-year-old African girl is kidnapped by rebels who turn her into a cold-eyed killer before deciding she is their captive sorcerer.

In some sub-Saharan African country where wars ebb and flow in a constant, blood-dimmed tide, a teenage girl with the eyes of a traumatized warrior tells the story of how she became a soldier. She wants her child to know what happened, even though she believes her evil deeds are not forgivable. The girl, Komona (Rachel Mwanza), relates everything in a numbed voiceover as though narrating a nightmare. With all its talk of witches and gris-gris and the many ghosts walking around like flesh-and-blood people, writer-director Kim Nguyen’s Oscar-nominated War Witch is more like a fairytale from long ago than an of-the-moment topical drama.

Nguyen doesn’t waste time setting the stage, purposefully leaving viewers as lost as his heroine. Before we even know Komona’s name, a squad of rebels have stormed into her village and started massacring the adults. An AK-47 is thrust into 12-year-old Komona’s hands and she is told to shoot her parents dead. If not, the rebel lieutenant (Alain Bastien) assures her, he will butcher them slowly with his machete. She is hauled deep into the jungle with the other lost children who will become the rebels’ fearless and zombified shock troops.

After her initial trauma of murdering her mother and father, Komona is half-starved, given her own rifle in a quasi-religious ritual, and made to drink a hallucinogenic tree sap that turns the jungle first into a gorgeous paradise and then a ghost-haunted dead zone. At no point is she told why they are fighting the government or why her village was attacked. In the rebels’ dark dream, all that matters is power, death and the frenzy of the moment. The only thing that seems real to Komona are the ghosts, who clamber through the jungle like nightmarish acrobats, their skins caked in grey mud and eyes blank. Nguyen smartly shoots these scenes like any others, without abstracting effects. The world of spirits and spells is an ever-present one; the line between the living and the dead more porous membrane than wall.

When the ghosts warn Komona of nearby soldiers, the rebels proclaim her a “war witch,” and deliver her to their leader, the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwanga). His compound—set surreally amidst some abandoned pagodas—is like the rebels’ jungle camps writ large, with armed men wandering about and going on missions seemingly at random, and murder- and drug-dazed children watching Jean-Claude Van Damme movies. There, she starts a friendship with another child soldier, a blond-haired boy called Magicien (Serge Kanyinda). The years pass in confusion and horror, noted only by title cards listing Komona’s age.

Nguyen’s film takes on slightly more solidity once Komona falls in with Magicien. After he makes his romantic intentions known, and Komona refuses to marry him unless he can find a white rooster (her village’s tradition, she remembers her father saying), the story even takes a detour from the unrelenting savagery of the war. Of course, we know that no matter how long their sojourn is, the conflict will catch up with them again; this is not a part of the world that knows peace for long. (Although the country is never named, Nguyen filmed in the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo.) But even if love doesn’t quite manage to bloom in this parched soil, the fact that any kind of companionship can survive is a kind of testament in itself.

War Witch is a kinetic piece of work, filled with frenzied violence that is never exploitative and well-earned flashes of transcendence. With its epic odyssey undertaken by a couple of magic-haunted children, dark and saturated colors, and lush soundtrack of spry African pop tunes and traditional folk songs, Nguyen’s film feels like the work of a master artist, liberally dusted with a dire magic.