The mood for writer and director Kim Nguyen’s Oscar-nominated film War Witch was set from the opening credits. The visceral experience while watching this film is one not to be taken lightly. While there are few moments of relief throughout the film, those brief moments seem all the more devastating while surrounded by the heavy nature of the subject matter.
The audience was taken on an unprecedented journey following the life of Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a pre-teen girl who is violently taken from her home to join a rebel cause that was never hers to fight. Komona was never able to fully let go of what was done to her and what she had been force to do to others, which is to make war. Habitually it was referred throughout the film as they were in the middle of making war. This simple phrase was able to elevate this understated, elegantly made film to a cinematic experience that made me question the very foundation of the concept of war. No longer was it we are at war but that we as people make war; that these kids were in the business of making war. Komona’s personal journey was one that is often not thought about, which in the end was shocking.
As writer and director, Nguyen played a massive role with his seemingly unorthodox way of filming. There wasn’t a script reading before production started. The production of the film was taken for granted on a day-to-day basis, with the actors only being told about what was going to be happening the day of shooting. This unusual approach made the film very raw in a way that might not have been achieved if the production was a bit more traditional.
Never before had I thought about pre-teen girls in rebel armies. I had always known about young boys being kidnapped from their homes and forced to do horrendous acts, but I had always assumed that the girls were either left abandoned or killed. I am not sure at this point which would be the worst fate. When Komona became the only survivor from her village, with the aid of the ghosts she saw in the forests, her captors declared her a witch that would bring their army to greatness. While this lasted for longer than anyone would wish, she eventually escaped the rebel army at the persistence of The Wizard. From there her journey took on a lighter note that brought small moments of happiness in Komona’s life. These small moments of happiness didn’t last.
What is truly amazing about this film is Rachel Mwanza, the young actress at the center of it all as Komona. Mwanza is a 16-year-old girl whom was abandoned at the young age of six. Although she should have faced difficulties considering she has never acted before nor being able to read a script, her performance was astonishing. Mwanza, along with many of the other inexperienced actors in the film, were able to draw upon their own personal experiences to be able to tell this story in a way that otherwise would not have been nearly as powerfully told.
When we are first introduced to Komona, she seemed as any child would, carefree and happy. As War Witch concluded, you were left with the images of Komona and how she had transformed from a girl of innocence and having her hair done by her parents to a girl who was forced to experience darkness and become the girl that she never wanted to become.