(This review originally appeared at Reel Film News on March 22, 2013.)
Canada’s entry into the 2012 Oscar race, War Witch, is a stunning and frightening film. It’s frightening to me because in my world, when I see children in movies, they’re usually going on a treasure hunt, trying to rescue a Babe Ruth-signed ball from a gargantuan dog, or triumphantly overcoming abuse or something mildly scary. They don’t tote guns around and kill their parents, which is something we see in the first five minutes of War Witch. The world that protagonist Komona (Rachel Mwanza) comes from is a decidedly different world than mine, where children are plucked from their families and turned into soldiers and cannon fodder for anti-government rebels.
Whenever I see films about children being forced to grow up in such a short time (often resulting in tragedy) – City of God, Blood Diamond, the TV film 24: Redemption – my heart breaks as a parent of two. “Children should not have to see the things we do,” says Don Rafael Montero of The Mask of Zorro, and I believe he is right. No child should have to see the horrors of life; in my opinion, children should be able to enjoy their lives before they become one of us, whether we are working stiffs, artists, politicians, or soldiers. To me, people who use children as soldiers are the epitome of evil, making a child lay down their short life for a cause that the child may know nothing about. Children should be free to use their imaginations, to play, and to dream, instead of being brainwashed and used as a hired killer, which is the role Komona has to accept under threat of witnessing her parents’ horrible death.
War Witch broke my heart in every sense of the phrase, as we see two years of Komona’s stolen life flash past our eyes in 90 minutes. Her voiceover narration is not for us, but for the child growing in her belly, as she takes us from the time she gets forcibly conscripted into a rebel army headed by a man called Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). We don’t know exactly why they fight the government; all we see is Komona and her contemporaries being trained with automatic weapons and given little food by superiors who are barely older than Komona. One of them, an albino called “Magician” (Serge Kanyinda), develops a rapport with Komona, and it’s with him that she deserts the army. However, the question is: are they children, or adults? Having killed others, they can definitely no longer go back to being children; they are the only things they have to hold on to in their world, and they are the only two that can make sense of what has happened to them.The true sadness here is watching Komona and Magician try to grasp at the last vestiges of their childhoods while having to behave like adults. The dichotomy found in the film’s poster speaks volumes – we see two children, hand-in-hand, skipping down the road… carrying automatic weapons.
Almost documentary-like in its feel, War Witch makes us run the gauntlet of human emotion; you’ll feel as if you’ve been put through the wringer by film’s end. I think not knowing why they were fighting was writer/director Kim Nguyen’s way of telling us how utterly pointless war can seem, with people on both sides dying for essentially nothing. But the film finds a sweetness as Komona and Magician take center stage for the film’s middle act; while their childhood is ruined, we get to laugh a bit as they find their own way and turn their backs on the war life. There’s hope in this movie, but it takes a lot to see it; you have to sit through acts of violence that will shock you and stay with you for hours, if not days, after you watch this movie. War Witch is a movie not to be taken lightly, with its depressing theme of child soldiery in war taking a front seat to the larger message of hope and redemption. But it’s in that glimmer of hope that we can finally find some semblance of peace, although we have to go through hell to get there.
FINAL GRADE: A+
Reel Film News Movie Review by Eddie Pasa