Komona (Rachel Mwanza) narrates her tale to her unborn baby, a product of rape.
“Respect your guns. They are your mother and your father.” In “War Witch,” those orders are barked at orphaned African children who have been kidnapped and conscripted into a rebel army after their village has been decimated and their parents slain.
The adolescent captives in this mesmerizing, cinematic hallucination are herded into a forest, where they are handed AK-47s and trained to be soldiers under a warlord known as the Great Tiger. Although the location is identified only as sub-Saharan Africa, “War Witch” was filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo, ground zero of endless carnage and unspeakable atrocities.
The only references to the issues of the war are fleeting mentions of coltan, which is short for columbite-tantalite, a black, metallic ore used in cellphones. Congo produces more than 60 percent of the world’s supply and is the site of a coltan gold rush.
Because the narrative is driven by the sporadic off-screen narration of Komona (Rachel Mwanza) — a soft-voiced girl with spiky, braided hair, who is 12 when the story begins and 14 when it ends — “War Witch” barely acknowledges the political and economic factors behind the strife. The combatants are identified only as the government and the rebels. The villagers are caught in the squeeze.
The story unfolds as a child’s magical realist fable, haunted by ghosts in the imagination of the girl, who addresses her remarks to her unborn child, the product of rape. Komona ominously voices her doubts about “whether God will give me the strength to love you,” and she contemplates drowning her baby when it is born. The film examines the concepts of good and evil in the mind of a child who is repeatedly forced to do what she calls “bad things” but maintains an elemental moral sense.
The fourth feature directed by Kim Nguyen, a Montreal-based filmmaker of Vietnamese descent, “War Witch” shows a lot of gunfire but little actual bloodshed. There is nothing so overtly grisly that you might want to avert your eyes. This discretion lends the film an almost disembodied feeling, as if the horrors Komona witnesses and perpetuates were somehow unreal to her, although they are not.
In the opening scene she is given a gun and told to choose between shooting her parents, who huddle in front of her, or watching them come to a much more painful end via machete. With tears in her eyes, she shoots them. Then, with other captives, she is whisked by motorized canoe up the river and led into a forest where training exercises immediately commence. New recruits are regularly beaten and face near-starvation.
Komona’s salvation is her imagination. Stimulated by “magic milk,” a hallucinogen found in sap, she has visions of ghosts in the trees (actors in white body paint, their eyes blank), including those of her parents, who warn her of the enemy’s proximity. When she narrowly escapes an ambush after the ghosts alert her to danger, word of her supernatural gifts gets back to the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), who summons her to his side and dubs her his protective “war witch.”
With her only friend, Magician (Serge Kanyinda), a slightly older albino boy who introduced her to the sap, she flees the rebel army. The movie’s middle section is an idyll during which Magician asks Komona to marry him. She refuses unless he catches her a white rooster, and his comical quest for this elusive prize, which is reputed not to exist, is a respite from the rest of the film’s horrors.
For a time, the couple stay with Magician’s uncle, Butcher (Ralph Prosper), who witnessed acts against his family that were so barbarous that Komona refuses to describe them. This peaceful section is buoyed by sparkling fragments of African pop music.
Their euphoria is short-lived. The Great Tiger, needing his war witch, dispatches his soldiers to find Komona, and she is dragged back into the forest, where she becomes the sexual slave of a hateful commander who impregnates her; she wreaks an excruciating revenge.
Komona’s ultimate desire is to return to her village and bury her parents’ remains so that her child will not grow up cursed. And the movie reaches a tentative peace as she ritually buries what few bones she can find in shallow pockets of sand.
Superstition, witchcraft, exorcism, talismans that ward off evil: in this land of the supernatural, irrationality prevails. But “War Witch” is so cleareyed that it makes you wonder how much more irrational this world is than the so-called civilized one under its camouflage of material wealth.
The movie is committed to revealing the world through Komona’s eyes, and you never feel a taint of voyeurism or condescension. It stays true to her.
Opens on Friday in Manhattan.
Written and directed by Kim Nguyen; director of photography, Nicolas Bolduc; edited by Richard Comeau; production design by Emmanuel Fréchette; costumes by Éric Poirier; produced by Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin and Item 7; released by Tribeca Film. In French and Lingala, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Rachel Mwanza (Komona), Alain Bastien (Rebel Lieutenant), Serge Kanyinda (Magician), Mizinga Mwinga (Great Tiger) and Ralph Prosper (the Butcher).