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'War Witch' casts spell of horrific brutality

| Thursday, April 4, 2013, 8:55 p.m.
Tribeca Film
Serge Kanyinda and Rachel Mwanza in 'War Witch'

Twelve-year-old Komona is kidnapped from her sub-Saharan African village by rebels and forced to become a soldier. She is handed a gun almost as big as she is and ordered to kill her parents.

With that premise, “War Witch” paints a powerful and upsetting portrait of a young girl compelled into unimaginably horrific circumstances.

When Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is taken by the rebel army, she and 10 other kids are given AK-47s and admonished: “Respect your guns. They're your new mother and father.”

Then, as part of their training, she and her fellow recruits are regularly beaten and starved.

As disturbing as the plot is, this foreign-language Oscar nominee is somehow not unremittingly bleak. Komona finds tender solace with a boy soldier. But later, she is raped by her commander and impregnated. She speaks to her unborn child, concerned about whether she will have the strength to love a baby who could resemble the man who violated her.

Canadian director Kim Nguyen does a superb job of conveying the terrifying lives of African children forced into unspeakable violence. Inspired by actual events, it's a beautifully shot (mostly in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and deeply moving film, with evocative African music that helps to lighten the story's subject matter.

It's impossible not to empathize with Komona, whose serene off-camera narration provides emotional perspective. Somehow, she holds on to her dignity and moral decency, even after being made to repeatedly commit terrible acts.

It's deeply disturbing to watch what these children are compelled to do at the behest of adults who beat them with sticks, stab or shoot them if they don't comply. But Nguyen avoids excessive gore.

Mwanza, a non-professional actress, is terrific. Natural and expressive, her face is etched with wariness, grief and trepidation.

Komona is set apart from the others forced into the rebel militia because of her ghostly visions. The supreme leader, Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), considers her a witch and relies on her to spot government soldiers hiding nearby. Meanwhile, she is haunted by the memory of her parents and worries that she needs to return to her village and bury them.

She forms a friendship with an albino boy called Magician (Serge Kanyinda) and he persuades her to escape with him. He asks her to marry him, and she repeats something her father told her: “First, you must find a white rooster” — a creature that's believed not to exist. Komona experiences the joyful sense of peace that a child should have while the two are on the run. They are later rounded up by soldiers. But for a while, their lives are carefree.

Director Nguyen worked on the film for a decade, researching children's reactions and perspectives, since the story is told from Komona's point of view. It's a startling achievement. We understand her intense emotions in this nightmarish world. Nguyen avoids any hint of condescension or artifice. Actual politics are left vague, no doubt, intentionally. He artfully juxtaposes carnage with scenes of dreamlike magical realism, providing a path for the viewer to get into Komona's head.

“War Witch” exquisitely shines a light on the brutal world of child soldiers, a devastating subject profoundly worth exploring.

Claudia Puig is a movie critic for USA Today.

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