Somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, 12-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is telling her unborn child a story. It’s not a fairytale or a bedtime story. It’s a war story. Kidnapped from her village and forced to join a group of rebels in a bloody civil war, Komona is a resilient young woman. Where other films work hard to make us feel pity for kids in war, War Witch lets us meet one of these kids, and see deeper into their humanity. It shows us that nothing is hopeless; that even in our darkest moments, we have agency.
We first meet Komona in her home village, where she lives with her parents (Starlette Mathata and Alex Herabo). It’s a normal day. Komona works in the kitchen and goes down to the river to get water. At the river, she hears a noise. It’s so faint that the viewer can’t really hear or place it at first. When we see Komona and those around her bolt, though, we know that someone is coming up the river and that it won’t be good news. Shaky, handheld camera shots throw us into the maelstrom.
Just moments after Komona breaks away from the riverbank, rebel soldiers arrive in motorized boats. They run into the village, rounding up some folks and shooting everyone else. Commandant Rebelle (Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien) grabs Komona as she seeks refuge in her parents’ hut. He makes her parents stand in front of her, gives her a gun and orders her to shoot them. If she doesn’t, the commandant tells her, he will kill them himself and he’ll do it slowly.
It’s the first time in the film where we see the operations of recruitment and brainwashing laid bare. For viewers outside of war-torn countries, it can seem almist impossible to conceive of how children are turned into soldiers. What director Kim Nguyen does here is begin to unravel a very messy and intricate system of power relations. That the film doesn’t deign to make sweeping conclusions or even really judge this system is testament to Nguyen’s restraint.
It’s this restraint makes the film the gorgeous, heart-wrenching thing that it is. After being taken from her village, Komona is forced to join the rebels and fight with them. She and other kidnapped children are told repeatedly that their guns are their new mothers and fathers. They are beaten, made to drink hallucinogenic sap, and subjected to long, grueling walks. Komona eats only because a fellow soldier called Magicien (Serge Kanyinda) sneaks her food. It’s under these conditions that she begins to have visions of her dead parents and other ghosts.
These visions, combined with the fact that she is the sole survivor of her village, prompt the commandant to take Komona to rebel headquarters. There she is exalted as a war witch, an individual deemed to have the extraordinary ability to determine the location of hidden state troops. The newly crowned war witch is taken to meet the head of the rebel forces, a man known only as The Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). He gives her a special gun that he says was blessed by his wizard.
Komona’s life at The Great Tiger’s compound isn’t as bad as it could be. While she’s sent to work in mines with other soldiers, she’s not forced to do grueling labor all day. Magicien takes a further interest in her while she’s out on these work details, protecting her and talking to her. It’s not long before state soldiers arrive outside the compound, killing dozens of rebels. Komona, Magicien and another young soldier are the only rebels outside the compound left standing.
It’s in this moment that the story seems to shift. Magicien tells Komona something she’d never considered: The Great Tiger is going to kill her someday. He tells her that three war witches before her have been killed. He also tells her that he loves her and wants to marry her. Awakened by Magicien’s honesty, and his desire for her, Komona agrees to leave with him. She gives him the conditions under which she will marry him and the two begin their life.
The escape from The Great Tiger’s compound seems almost too easy. The young pair heads to the house of The Butcher (Ralph Prosper), Magicien’s uncle. Komona is quickly integrated into the family. As the viewer knows must be the case, though, the rebels do catch up with Komona and Magicien eventually. The scene that unfolds is so tragic but also so well done that it leaves the viewer with a distinct, unshakable taste of melancholy.
Komona’s life after the return of the rebels is yet more unbearable than what she’s faced before. Commandant Rebelle is intent on turning her into his wife and preventing her from ever leaving him. The ghosts that she began seeing soon after her kidnapping become ever more present. The ghosts of her parents in particular haunt her. Nguyen puts the audience in a desperate place, but not to illustrate that Komona is hopeless.
War Witch is about many things – war, child soldiers, brainwashing – but it is also about hope. Nguyen resists the urge to make us feel pity for Komona and Magicien. He allows us to feel a lingering sorrow, but he also uses the story to show us that there is no moment in life at which agency is lost. Speaking against incredible odds, Komona tells her child her story. In so doing, she speaks directly to the audience, allowing us to see the life of a child soldier in a way we’ve never seen it before.
The special features included on the DVD release of War Witch aren’t expansive, but they do add a lot to the film. An Academy Awards promo with director Kim Nguyen illuminates the driving ideas behind the film and helps us better understand the director’s larger artistic aims. In another featurette, a short scene between Komona and Magicien is dissected to show how it was crafted. The disc also includes the film’s original theatrical trailer.