F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 5, 2015)

5 02 2015

War WitchMany harrowing stories of child soldiers in Africa have found expression in art, exposing many Westerners to the ravages of the continent’s civil wars.  Few strike such a powerful and resonant emotional chord as Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch,” though.  This was one of the Academy’s five nominees for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012, and it is also my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” for the way it elevates discourse on its subject matter beyond victimization for the characters and easy pity for the audience.

Nguyen’s film, which he also wrote, tracks three years in the life of adolescent Komona (Rachel Mwanza, in a stunning debut performance) in sub-Saharan Africa.  Or, rather, Komona recounts them herself in a heartbreaking address to her unborn child.  When she foregrounds her life by stating, “I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you,” Komona’s disembodied voice sets the stage for the depiction of some true horrors.

“War Witch” does not these nightmarish events in body count or in flowing carnage, however.  Nguyen shows his interest lies in exploring the emotional damage inflicted by the atrocities of war.  This is observable as early as the first time rebels force Komona to kill someone.  When she pulls the trigger, the camera stays fixated on her face alone.  If the film affords any attention at all to the life she took, it would be a hurried and unclear shot of the body as Komona runs away from it.

The movie mostly remains at that same level of anguish and distress, though Nguyen does allow for a few beautiful, tender moments.  “War Witch” is not about mysticism, but it finds a way to naturally incorporate its presence and influence into the proceedings.  The rebel leaders declare Komona, the improbable last person living from her village, a “war witch” since only the supernatural could explain her survival.  That status attracts the fondness of a young boy, the group’s “magician,” and his affection helps restore a small bit of hope for humanity.

But, sadly, “War Witch” is not a tender romance.  It is a film about the abominations of war, which Nguyen artistically renders with a sense of surrealism.  Often times, he takes away the soundtrack to a brutal act, simply leaving the image of what it is and nothing more.  Komona commits, and is often party to, these violent deeds, although she also suffers great losses because of them.  Her internal torment over these conflicting roles proves far more gut-wrenching than any other traumatic occurence in the movie (and “War Witch” has plenty of those to spare).

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