Heavily pregnant African child soldier Rachel Mwanza begins War Witch by narrating in a whisper to her unborn child, explaining her history and reluctantly admitting, “I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you.” She goes on to describe how at age 12, she was kidnapped by a rebel army and forced to murder her own parents; how she was married at 13; and how she killed the rapist who impregnated her. It’s painful material, but the most striking thing about the film is how little it mines the story for pathos, laces it with sentiment, or otherwise tries to control the audience’s emotions. It presents Mwanza’s story as a regrettable progression of events, but not an extraordinary one for her unnamed country. And the way she takes events in stride, quickly becoming acclimated to extremes of violence and horror and integrating them into her daily life, may actually be the film’s most heartbreaking aspect.
War Witch had its U.S. première at Tribeca in 2012, and the festival went on to award the film its top narrative feature award, and to purchase it for theatrical distribution. It later became one of the year’s Academy Award nominees for Best Foreign Language Film. Still, War Witch doesn’t feel like awards-bait hand-wringing; it follows more in the footsteps of Terrence Malick, with beautiful compositions belying ugly events, and a protagonist whose whispered words guide the audience through a voyage of self-discovery. But where Malick’s characters question their relationship with the spiritual world, Mwanza lives frankly and unquestioningly in an environment defined by ghosts and magic; the film’s English-language title comes from the rebel leader’s insistence that Mwanza has witchcraft on her side, which earns her special treatment, but a guaranteed execution if her powers fail him. And in spite of its periodic gun battles, War Witch is quieter than a Malick film, with long, wordless, often music-free stretches where writer-director Kim Nguyen simply observes Mwanza and her fellow heavily armed anti-government rebels, as they roughhouse, train, sing, drink, slip through the brush in search of enemies, or babble under the influence of hallucinogenic tree sap. Nguyen seems more interested in exploring the child-soldier experience on an intuitive, experiential level than in whipping viewers into specific response.
To that end, Mwanza’s country is never named, though Nguyen shot primarily in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where his lead actress was a Kinshasa street kid. And War Witch never touches on the politics that set the rebels and the government against each other; the story is Mwanza’s, not theirs or the country’s. Instead of closing in on such details, the film finds beauty in more universal moments: an amber bottle lighting up with refracted firelight, or the goofy martial-arts cries Mwanza’s husband-to-be emits when play-fighting, or the extraordinary moment when Mwanza explores the musical sound a rusty metal fence makes. War Witch is a remarkably mature portrait that trusts its audience to have their own reactions to its material; it doesn’t yank at the heartstrings so much as expertly tune them.