Movie review: Enslaved kids' grim life bared in 'War Witch'

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When rebel soldiers ambush Komona's village and grab the 12-year-old girl, they don't just make her witness her parents' murders. They make her commit them.

Shoot them, a rampaging interloper commands, or he will take a machete to them. "Komona, do as he says," her father, kneeling alongside her mother, orders.

And she does, with tears sliding down her cheeks and dripping from her neck.

'War Witch'

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

  • Starring:

    Rachel Mwanza.

  • Rating:

    No MPAA rating but R in nature.

In "War Witch" (originally titled "Rebelle"), she and nine other children are marched into the African jungles where they are beaten, intimidated and indoctrinated about their AK-47s: "We are rebels. Respect your guns. They're your new mother and father."

When Komona begins to see ghosts -- the dead appear as if covered in gray mud -- she is able to anticipate the movements of the government army and is christened a "war witch" by the rebel leader known as the Great Tiger.

A fellow soldier, a 15-year-old albino she calls Magician, asks her to marry him, but peace, joy and anything approaching a conventional childhood seem outside her grasp. By age 14, her life has taken further devastating turns and she tries to lay to rest the ghosts of her violence-scarred life.

"War Witch," shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in July 2011, is the fourth of the five Oscar-nominated foreign language films to open in Pittsburgh. The fifth, "Kon-Tiki," is due in May.

Director-writer Kim Nguyen's story is fictional but he was inspired by real-life child soldiers, including twin brothers Luther and Johnny Htoo.

In the jungles of Myanmar in the late 1990s, guerrillas looked to the twins for divine inspiration in their fight against the military. They believed the boys -- who looked no older than age 8 when they surrendered in Thailand after a year on the run -- could repel bullets, news reports said.

The Montreal-born filmmaker weaves a grim tale of enslaved child soldiers in sub-Saharan Africa -- brutality, rape, babies conceived in violence, and the mining of coltan, a mineral gobbled up by cell phone manufacturers (a connection not made clear here).

For her portrayal of Komona, non-professional Rachel Mwanza was honored with actress prizes at the Berlin and Tribeca film festivals along with the Canadian Screen Awards in March.

She's remarkable as a child -- and she looks like a girl, not even a teen -- vaulted into an adult world through no fault of her own. And that is true of her off-screen life, too.

The director told The New York Times, among others, that Rachel was abandoned by her parents when she was 5 or 6 years old. She lived briefly with her grandmother and then became homeless.

A Belgian documentary team first took notice of Rachel, who was living on the streets of Kinshasa when the "War Witch" crew providentially found her. Earlier this year she walked the Oscar red carpet in heels and a ruffled, layered gown, like her character making a case for hope, rebirth and resilience.

In French and Lingala, with English subtitles. Opens today at the Harris Theater, Downtown.


Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: or 412-263-1632. Read her blog:


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