Set within civil war in Africa, we meet Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a twelve year old girl whose village is destroyed by rebels. After her parents are killed she is forced to join them as a child soldier, living in the jungle and surviving off magic milk from the tree which gives her special powers to see ghosts. The rebels call her ‘war witch’ due to her visions and being the only one from her village to survive, and the commander prevents anything from happening to her by claiming her as his, forcing her to sleep with him. Komona meets and connects with another soldier who she calls ‘Magician’ due to his supposed powers and superstitious rituals. The ghosts of her parents haunt Komona and as she gradually falls in love with Magician during a time of horrific acts of violence, she must deal with the situations thrown at her and try to return to her village to bury her parents so that their ghosts don’t eternally wander the earth.
This is a harrowing film but the love story at the heart of it provides another element, Magician’s quest to find a white rooster adding some much needed light relief from the story of war in The Congo. For all the atrocities the film chooses to leave a lot to our imagination, Komona describes a horrifying act of torture but we never see it, it is left for us to visualise. The Butcher later on in the story also doesn’t speak of what happened to his family, we just see close ups of him cutting the meat which is just as affecting. The film visually depicts the ghosts that Komona sees as people painted white with white eyes, an effectively haunting and surreal visualisation. The perspective is that of Komona’s throughout and due to that we feel for the character and gain an insight into a different culture during war.
The central performance by Mwanza is exceptional and the rest of the cast, largely consisting of non-professional actors, do an incredible job. The film feels realistic and its choice to focus on some African legends avoid this being just another harrowing tale of war. The perspective of a child soldier understandably makes this a poignant tale but the glimpses of happiness we see add a feeling of positivity and hope to a dire situation.
Lively music successfully enhances the soul of the film and whilst we are thrown into the action from the beginning, it is when the film slows down that the story really blossoms. One particularly shocking and horrific act towards the end of the film truly demonstrates the strength and character of the protagonist and I found myself really caring for her. Striking imagery is presented throughout the film, one scene with a large family of albinos is particularly prominent and the white rooster along with the white ghosts stands out amongst the greens and browns of the location.
Although not an enjoyable film as such due to the subject matter, War Witch (Rebelle) has a surprisingly uplifting spirit due to the determination and strength of the main character. Full of authenticity and cultural references this is a fascinating viewpoint on war that never utilises shock tactics or graphic depictions of violence to make it memorable. Instead it focuses on the people and these strong performances are what make War Witch memorable.
Director: Kim Nguyen
Writers: Kim Nguyen, Michel Coulombe and Pierre Magny (storyline consultants), Alexandre Mangona and Simon Trépanier (collaborating writers)
Stars: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Bastien and Serge Kanyinda
Runtime: 90 mins