Up there with “Stoker” and “Like Someone in Love” as one of the best films to hit theaters this spring, “War Witch” is devastating, beautiful and truly not to be missed. An Oscar nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, this gut-wrenching tale of a child soldier has been reeling in the accolades: Best Actress awards for young star Rachel Mwanza at both the Berlin and Tribeca film festivals, along with a whopping 10 honors (including Best Picture) at this year’s Canadian Screen Awards.
Shot primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, this French-language drama follows a 12-year-old girl as she is kidnapped from her village by rebel soldiers – forced to gun down her parents and engage in guerilla warfare. She finds comfort in love and spirituality, and while some of the film’s horrors may be too difficult to bear, there is an overall sense of hope that helps soften the blow.
“War Witch” is the fourth feature from Quebec-born Kim Nguyen, a humble yet well-spoken artist who both penned and directed the film. The East Valley Tribune caught up Nguynen just a few short days after Oscar Sunday, when the thrill of the ceremony and meeting Daniel Day Lewis was still fresh in his mind.
Q: So to begin with, what first inspired you to write this film and how did you try to approach the subject of child soldiers differently than other films have in the past?
A: This story came about very organically. I had read different stuff like about these kids from Burma. One went by the name of Johnny Htoo and he was 9. He woke up one day and said he was a reincarnation of God and he led an army of 200 soldiers to fight against the soldiers of the government. That was one of the initial premises. Then when I traveled and was doing research and preparing for the film, there were all these different sorts of facets of Africa that came up and I realized that I wanted it to be a fresco of post-modern, 21st century, subterranean Africa.
That’s where these different layers of reality came in, like this war and the story of this child soldier, but also this love story. Also this almost artistic, contemporary, post-modern Africa, you know, filled with all these idiosyncrasies. I would find these three layers that I wanted to give a certain amount of translucence and wanted the film to be you seeing and watching the film through these three layers.
Q: I personally found the relationship between Magician and Komona very unexpected and refreshing, just to see a man that truly respected and loved her after all she had been through. Why did you think this was an important element of the story and what do you think Rachel and Serge (Kanyinda) really brought to that relationship?
A: Yeah, it’s a good question. You know, when you film these things, you write them and you’re really scared. You hope that they’re not going to be a break of tone; that they’re going to jerk your audience but at the same time, that they’re going to be acceptable and they’re not going to discredit everything that you’ve brought forward beforehand. I guess the way to be kind of trusted is to make sure that what you’re saying, whatever you are, it’s just filled with the authenticity of real life.
All of the things that I bring on the script are influenced or are just manifestations of things I’ve read or that I’ve seen in real life in subterranean Africa. One of the coolest – well, not the coolest – but one of the most amazing idiosyncrasies that you see in their lives is you’re in this war-torn area where people shoot at each other and people are hungry, and yet, you still see those very naïve love stories where the girlfriend is jealous of the boyfriend because he came late and she’s sure that he was with his sister or whatever having drinks. People want the other to be faithful and they want to be married and they want to have a family. I think that both of them gathered depth when you superimpose them, and that’s where the love story came from.
I guess I wanted to present that idiosyncrasy that I saw so many times in Congo and Burundi. In Burundi when I was collaborating for the script, I collaborated with a dear friend who was working for the U.N. at the time in the World Food Program. He brought me to Burundi to meet ex-child soldiers and that’s where I also met one of my post-modern Africa experts. She was the one who suggested that there should be a white rooster in the film.
Q: I understand that Rachel was a street kid when you first met her but had previously appeared in a documentary. What qualities really drew you to her or convinced you that she could carry this film?
A: There were two things, actually. After we casted her, we quickly realized she had this innate sense of something that is very close to method acting. The tragic scenes that you see in the film and how she gets there is often set by her own tragedies that she lived through as a kid in the streets before we put her on board for this film. Once we asked her – after she had gone through and done this amazing scene in preparation for the film – she said that she thinks about what makes her sad and what touched her in her own private life and she just brings that on the screen.
Q: I thought the most troubling scene to watch was where Komona is sleepwalking and saying how her gun is her child, her father and her mother. Was this sort of mentality something you saw in many of the ex-child soldiers that you spoke with?
A: It’s funny, nobody ever asks me about that scene but I’m glad you are because there’s something really eerie about that scene. I think that a film is always a projection of your own self and your own background, in a way, but I had read that child soldiers are always haunted by what they did. They’re so indoctrinated of being aware and doing war and I learned that the first week or two that they take away their guns, they’re really anguished and they feel vulnerable. That’s one of the things I read.
And then, I have my uncle – my father’s Vietnamese and I have an uncle who was a sniper in the Vietnamese army but fighting with the U.S. on the U.S. side who was, at the time, a very, very elite soldier. The first night he came back in Montreal, he was having nightmares and my grandmother woke him up to try to calm him down. When my uncle woke up, he had his hands around my grandmother’s neck and he was strangling her, like he had kept his reflexes from living in the jungle. So it was kind of a mixture of the two: child soldiers and then the story of my uncle with my grandmother after Vietnam.
Q: What was your experience like getting to celebrate “War Witch” at the Oscars? Was there anybody that you got to see or meet at the ceremony that you were especially excited about?
A: There was kind of a part of relief when the ceremony started because you have all this anticipation, and it turns out that the staff really makes all their efforts to make it feel comfortable and as relaxed as possible. It was just really great to be there and amazing and very crazy.
I did meet amazing people that I respect so much and it was a real treat. My colleague and I spoke with Daniel Day Lewis – who I find to be an incredible actor – and got to talk to him about our film. Daniel had seen our film previously and said he loved it, and that was a cool treat. I exchanged words with Gael Garcia Bernal who is an amazing actor and he’s really good in “No,” the film that was in competition with us in the Foreign Language category. I just met so many people that it’s hard to make a list of them.
- “War Witch” is now playing at Harkins Shea 14 in Scottsdale. It is also available on video-on-demand and iTunes. For more information about the film, visit www.warwitch-film.com.