Tuesday, 12 March 2013
FILM REVIEW: REBELLE (WAR WITCH)
This time last year, the Kony 2012 campaign took off like wildfire; calling the West's attention to African cult and militia leader, Joseph Kony, and his use of child soldiers. Like most online-generated fads, the Kony 2012 campaign has lost public attention if not traction in the 12 months since, but Kim Nguyen's Rebelle, although fictional, provides an intimate and unsparing look inside the life of one such soldier.
Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is just 12-years-old when rebel soldiers fighting for the Great Tiger arrive in her village, rounding up the children big enough to carry a gun and killing most of the adults. Komona, as a sadistic form of initiation rite, is forced to shoot her parents and their ghosts will haunt her over the two-year period in which the story unfolds (she is actually telling her story to her unborn child).
As "luck" would have it, Komona seems to be blessed with certain mystic powers (such as seeing the dead) which earns her a protected place in the ranks of the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) as his 'war witch' (the film's North American title). It also earns her the attentions of Magician (Serge Kanyinda), an albino boy a few years older than Komona who has also been afforded protected status because of his so-called powers.
The friendship and then romance between Komona and Magician provides some much needed, albeit brief, respite from the everyday life of a child soldier, where it's kill for the Great Tiger or be killed. But when the two decide to abandon their leader and make a normal life for themselves, they soon realise that like with most cults, you're not out until they say you're out.
Kim Nguyen's film draws easy comparison, well, at least for me, with Cate Shortland's Lore: a young woman forced to come of age in a harsh and political environment, discovering both her inner strength and her sexuality along the way. Even the cinematography by Nicholas Bolduc is reminiscent of Adam Arkapaw's lensing of Lore, capturing, almost dream-like, the beauty amid the terror.
Sadly, as was the case with Lore, I was intrigued by the young heroine's journey if not necessarily moved by it. Rachel Mwanza has a stillness about her that makes her eminently watchable, and when she dares to smile, she lights up the screen. I wasn't as conflicted in my empathy for Komona as I was for Saskia Rosendahl's Nazi daughter in Shortland's film, but I still felt at a remove from it all.
The violence is powerful, even shocking at times, but Nguyen, a Canadian director (Rebelle was that country's successful submission for the 2012 Best Foreign Language Oscar), is never gratuitous or frivolous with it, and the film, shot on location in the Democratic Repubic of the Congo -- and as if to counter the harsh realities of Komona's predicament -- always looks beautiful.
Innocence may be the first thing to die during war but hope springs eternal, and Nguyen's film ends on a hopeful note albeit a bittersweet one. You get the sense that Komona -- soldier, survivor, mother, child -- is going to be all right but in the real world, Kony 2012 campaign or not, the plight of child soldiers continues.