A few minutes into “War Witch,” the film’s 12-year-old heroine is faced with a hellish choice: Kill her own parents, or watch them be killed by the rebels who have kidnapped her and who intend to turn her into a child warrior.
This is only the first horror visited upon Komona (Rachel Mwanza) in Canadian filmmaker Kim Nguyen’s harrowing, Oscar-nominated drama, which, though filmed in Congo, is set in an unspecified African nation beset by civil war. By the time Komona is 13, she has been elevated to the position of war witch, a kind of supernatural military mascot, based on her alleged ability to find government troops hiding in the jungle. By the time she is 14, she has been taken as the common-law wife of a fellow teenage soldier (Serge Kanyinda) and impregnated by her sadistic commander (Alain Bastien).
She will kill many and see many be killed. One of the film’s more poetic touches is Komona’s ability to commune with the dead, whose spirits come to her, with gray skin and lifeless eyes, whenever she drinks a hallucinogenic tree sap called magic milk.
Though shot with the shaky, hand-held realism of documentary, “War Witch” has many such magical touches. Many may simply be the result of seeing the world and its harsh truths through the eyes of a child.
The leader of the rebels, known as Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), is shown with something called coltan. Although it appears to be a talismanic stone of some sort — at least from the perspective of Komona, who narrates the film — coltan is actually columbite-tantalite, a black ore used in the manufacture of cellphones and other electronics. In the real world, it is a source of conflict in Congo, though this is never mentioned.
In addition, Komona’s young lover, known as Magician, carries a pouch full of gris-gris, or charms, that are said to protect one from death. Suffice it to say that they don’t work very well.
In the title role, Mwanza gives a mostly stoic performance, free of histrionics. She’s a witness to history as much as a participant, lending credence to the theory that the film is her subjective view of reality, filtered through an innocent’s eyes. Children are drafted as soldiers because they are easily led and easily intimidated. Newer, lightweight weapons also make it possible for them to fight, and fight lethally, in ways that children never could in wars of old.
But children also process things differently. “War Witch” gets that, presenting a vision of life that is awful, in both senses of the word: terrible and beautiful.
It may be hard for a viewer to accept some of the paranormal goings-on in “War Witch” — the ghosts, the superstitions, the otherworldly powers — but they’re nothing compared to the realities that Komona has to endure.
Unrated. At West End Cinema. Contains violence, sex and nudity. In French and Lingala with English subtitles. 90 minutes.