At the Academy Awards this year, a smiling 16-year-old Rachel Mwanza walked down the red carpet in a colorful Ankara dress. Just days before, the Congolese star of War Witch—one of the five films nominated for Best Foreign Language Film and hitting select theaters today—was granted a visa to attend the awards show. In a formative year for the teen, she went from living alone on the streets in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to attending the Berlin and Tribeca film festivals over the past year—in much part due to Kim Nguyen and his film crew.
Nguyen, 38, the Canadian-born and half-Vietnamese director and screenwriter of the highly-acclaimed War Witch, was anxious on the red carpet. “It’s the Oscars and you’re nerve-racked,” Nguyen told The Daily Beast. “I didn’t know how it would turn out.”
Even though Amour ended up snagging the Oscar, the fruition of Nguyen’s hard work came with the success of his film throughout the past year, when it racked up awards and nominations from prominent international film festivals.
Ten years ago, the seed for War Witch was planted in Nguyen’s mind when he read an article about 10-year-old, chain-smoking twin brothers, Johnny and Luther Htoo, who led the God’s Army guerrilla group in Burma (Myanmar), and were believed to have spiritual and magical powers. However, War Witch takes place in sub-Saharan Africa instead of Myanmar.
“I started reading up on the Burmese story, but then it led me to stories about Angola and Sierra Leone,” Nguyen said. “I realized that 50 percent of child soldiers are girls, not just boys. You see this censorship of not seeing girls as soldiers, and only seeing images of boy soldiers. I wanted to give a voice to it.”
The story follows three years in the life of Komona (Mwanza), who is kidnapped at the age of 12 by rebel soldiers, strapped with an AK-47, and forced to kill opposing forces with the utmost brutality. When she becomes one of the few survivors of a shootout, Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), the leader of a guerrilla group, labels Komona as a witch with a sixth sense, capable of bringing his soldiers to victory. Tied into this bittersweet story is her romantic relationship with a 15-year-old child soldier (and albino) named Magician (Serge Kanyinda), their fleeting moments of happiness in an attempt to escape their terrifying world, and how she is haunted by the ghosts of her past.
The movie was filmed over four months in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic of the Congo, and Nguyen undertook an impressive feat, not only in shooting in a war-torn country, but also using a mostly Congolese cast—about 90 percent of whom had never acted prior to his movie. He had to take a unique approach to directing his actors, a method he intends to use for future films.
“We planned to shoot this chronologically and not reveal the scenes to the actors,” Nguyen said. “We only let them know the scenes a day or two ahead, so to give the actors an edge. They didn’t have to act in anticipation of the next scene. This is something I’d like to keep—this effervescence, the vibration that is this process.”
Another reason for this organic directing method was that Mwanza—who delivers a stunning and powerful, naturalistic performance—didn’t know how to read or write at the time they shot the film. Nguyen and his team have since put her in a re-establishment program for schooling and home care in Kinshasa, and she is now in her second year of the program. She even has a Facebook page and writes updates every now and then to let them know how she’s doing.
As for Magician—the strong-willed love interest of Komona, his role was never scripted to be an albino. When Nguyen and his crew were casting for the role, first-time actor Kanyinda—who is endearingly nicknamed “Eminem” in his hometown—was upset that he didn’t get to audition on account of his not fitting the look for the part. He was then given the opportunity to try for the role and turned out to be the best actor for the character.
“As an albino there, you’re either repudiated or chastised as a mistaken child with problems,” Nguyen said. “Or you can take that to your advantage and make yourself unique—it is rare—and that is what Serge did.”
The rich characters of War Witch are just some of the many elements that make this film uniquely thought-provoking and cinematic, highlighting the experience of living in country ravaged by war, and how that can alter a person’s sense of humanity. Nguyen uses magic realism to tell this story, mixing the surreal with the real, to effectively tell the disheartening tale. The child soldiers drink “magic milk,” an intoxicating drug that keeps them in a dream-like haze to help them carry out the horrific deeds they need to perform. When Komona drinks this substance, her deceased parents visit her as white ghosts with opaque eyes, protecting her, but also begging her to return home to give them a proper burial.
“I wanted it to be told in the point of view of the reality by this girl’s twisted past—the way she was indoctrinated, the way she has her own beliefs, and how she’s influenced by drugs,” Nguyen said. “Paradoxically, this film is more subjective in that it provides a reality bended by this person’s psyche, making it more objective in a psychological state of the character.
In showing the film through the eyes of Mwanza, Nguyen hopes to achieve a nonjudgmental look at the lives in it, because he feels the separation between good and evil is complex in sub-Saharan Africa. Despite the harsh content in this poignant story, the movie also touches upon aspects of hope, and how to live with life’s difficulties.
“I wanted to give this a kind of authentic truth with different layers of reality,” Nguyen said. “It’s about a war, but it’s also a love story, and about a psychedelic sub-Saharan Africa. The only thing that permeates the movie is the sense of resilience.”