Kidnapped by sub-Saharan African rebels at the age of 12, Komona (Rachel Mwanza), is forced at gunpoint to shoot her own parents (Starlette Mathata, Alex Herabo) and fight as a child soldier against the government in the jungles. But Komona is no ordinary soldier. Due to her ability to see gray ghosts in the trees that warn her of approaching enemies, she is deemed a sorceress and bestowed the title of War Witch by the supreme leader of the rebels, Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). She partners with the albino, Magician (Serge Kanyinda) but she is again kidnapped and forced to live with the Commander of her unit (Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien). When she falls pregnant, she tells her unborn child of her story as she seeks redemption for her actions in the past.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Only when we are faced with extremes of experience do we discover what resources we each have, how resilient we are as human beings. Rebelle is an exploration at the extreme end of extreme experiences, triggered by the phrase that is surely the most confronting oxymoron in the English language: child soldiers. It was an internet news story about the ghosts that African child soldiers claim to see that triggered Kim Nguyen's search for a way to tell some aspect of their stories on film.
The ghosts in Rebelle are quiet, peaceful beings, covered in white paint and wearing melancholy for clothes. Some are soldiers, threatening, others are beningn: Komona's (Rachel Mwanza) own parents, who she had to shoot under orders from the rebels. Her option was to watch them being hacked to death.
Although we may have all heard about the existence of child soldiers, even seen footage, Rebelle introduces us to some intimate details that build a complex and composite picture of their lives. There are two astonishing aspects to this film: one is that the rebels are fighting Government forces for reasons that are never explained. And it doesn't matter to our experience of the film, because it is not relying on judgments about their cause.
Secondly, it is astonishing that film that contains such violence can have such a serene tone. The source of the serenity is the measured, calm narration by Komona (voice of Diane Umawahoro) that is the telling of her story to her unborn child, who she fears she will not love. Her pessimism is understandable; the father of her child is not the man with whom she wanted children, but a rebel commander who took her as his concubine. The boy with whom she forged a relationship - Magician (Serge Kanyinda), her first love at the age of 14 - has been taken from her. Everything has been taken from her.
Rachel Mwanza is a gem, a natural on screen; she never overacts or grimaces. It's all so painfully real. But then the others in the cast are also so very real - we could be watching a documentary. This is especially so when we enter a village of albinos, whose striking features are not exploited, but which emphasise the existence of so much outside the comfort zone of most of us.
Absolutely compelling and haunting, Rebelle is a film for anyone, especially those who think they have seen it all before and whose cinematic palates have dried up.
Review by Louise Keller:
More poignant than words can express is the opening scene in which a young girl soldier talks to her unborn child, confessing she is unsure if she will have the strength to love him when he is born. Inspired by a newspaper article, Kim Nguyen's film is a devastating glimpse into the unknown world of an African child soldier. While the topic is abhorrent, the personal nature of Nguyen's story, in depicting two crucial years in the life of 12 year old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) after she is abducted from her home and forced to shoot her parents, ensures a profound connection. Depicting the circumstances and the unspeakable horrors with stark clarity, Rebelle (aka War Witch) is an exquisitely made film in direct contrast to the ugliness of its subject matter.
It is an astounding performance by first time actor Mwanza, whose innocence is shattered and she is irrevocably damaged as a result. Told that her parents would die a slow painful death from a machete if she does not shoot them, Rebelle begins her new life as a soldier with the tears of a child whose childhood is snatched away. Together with the other children abducted from the village, she is told that theAK-47 placed in her hands is her new mother and father. The sight of a child shaking from the impact of the gun she holds, and whose proportion is at odds is a horrific one. The hallucinatory white sap secreted from the leaves of the jungle (called 'magic milk') prompts Rebelle to see ghostly figures, including her dead parents - all wearing white body paint and eerie white eyes with no pupils. Deemed good luck, Rebelle's status as 'war witch' to Commander Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) arises when she is the only survivor of a gun battle against government soldiers.
The relationship between Rebelle and a young Albino boy called Magician (Serge Kanyinda) develops sweetly, when at Rebelle's insistence (after Magician's marriage proposal) to find an elusive white rooster. These scenes, filled with unexpected humour, provide welcome relief, before the action reverts to its earlier grisly tones and tragic circumstances, when Rebelle finds herself forced once again to be a member of the child army; this time as the wife of its Commander.
Shot in Kinshasa (formerly Léopoldville) in the Democratic Republic of Congo, there is a tangible sense of place about the lush jungles where much of the bloody action takes place, the barren soil where Coltan metallic ore is mined and the simple villages where the locals, like Magician's Uncle The Butcher (Ralph Prosper) live. With shattering simplicity (in voice over), Rebelle describes what she must do to survive before she matter-of-factly executes her plan.
There is abundant heart in this captivating yet shocking tale, mostly delivered by Mwanza's overwhelmingly transparent, vulnerable performance, for which she received best actress award at Berlin, Tribeca and Vancouver Film Festivals. The film has been nominated for an Academy Award, as Canada's official entry in the Foreign Language Category.
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aka War Witch
CAST: Rachel Mwanza, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien, Serge Kanyinda, Ralph Prosper, Mizinga Mwinga, Jean Kabuya, Jupiter Bokondji, Starlette Mathata, Alewx Herabo, Dole Malalou
NARRATION: Diane Umawahoro
PRODUCER: Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin
DIRECTOR: Kim Nguyen
SCRIPT: Kim Nguyen
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Nicolas Bolduc
EDITOR: Richard Comeau
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Emmanuel Frechette
RUNNING TIME: 90 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Curious Film
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: March 14, 2013