Monday, February 18, 2013

TBFF Film Review - Rebelle (War Witch)

A narrator begins a story that she is telling to her yet unborn child. The opening scene is a small village where two rebel canoes full of fighters with AK 47's sack the town round up all of the children with the potential to fight and force them to kill their loved ones or their loved ones will suffer a more brutal fate if the rebels do it themselves.  Among this group is 12 year old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) and we soon learn that she is the narrator telling her story of the time she went to war to her unborn child.

The children are taken by the rebel leaders and taught what it is to be a rebel solider.  Their gun is now both their mother and father and a rebel solider must never loose their gun.  Soon Komona gains the reputation of having a feel for the location of the government forces. She sees ghosts when she is fed the hallucinogenic milk like substance from the trees in the woods. These ghosts warn her when the government troops are present.  The rebel chief  The Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) believes that she is a witch and Komona is protected from any cruelty from other soldiers. The flip side is she is only valuable until the Rebels suffer a setback and her powers are questioned.

Magic spirituality and superstition play a major role in the community and the story. The rebels have a spiritual leader who directs the forces based on the outcome of casting stones. The group has one Albino solider the Magician (Serge Kanyinda)  who has rock like amulets that can protect your spirit from harm in the war. The piece is a mix of real events, fantasy and a glimpse into how forces can and do follow fantastical elements and make tactical decisions based on the spirit world.

Writer/ Director Kim Nguyen displays the brutality of a child soldiers life. Starting with a tear down of the soldiers past life then a rebuild into making your gun and the rebels your new family. The terrible conditions while on patrol. very little to eat hallucinogenics to keep the soldiers moving.  Nguyen divides the film into chapters based on Komona age at the time of the action. Starting from when she is kidnapped at 12 and moving onwards.

After a close call with government forces Komona is convinced to leave the rebels by the magician. He explains that the Great Tiger killed his last three witches once they fell out of favor.  Even after leaving the Rebels Komona continues to have the dreams of ghosts and family members. The Rebels also are not faraway as the Chief wants his witch back. The film does have an extended comedic interlude or a beak from the violence and strife as the Magician attempts to find a white rooster before he can have Komona's hand in marriage.

Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc presents a dreary landscape to match the sorrow and horror of the child solider existence. The sky's are often grey washed out colours mud, and the ghosts appear with white ashes covering their skin. There is some colour mainly during the interlude in the Magicians village when Komona and the Magician spend time with his uncle the butcher. We see the white of the rooster, the bright colours in the village and the greens of the local vegetation. The other piece of colour is in the rebel camp. The shots in the cam feature a blue sky, colourful plants and foliage and rich colour of the roads in the compound.

The film shot in the Congo has many location choices . The opening village has the look of a typical village in the sub Sahara area. It's a small group of buildings near the water. A variety of materials are used for the buildings from Aluminium to wood to hanging tapestries and tarps.  The buildings are multicoloured to show that each piece patched together is of different material. The base for the rebels has the elements of an old religions temple.  The main building in the compound is a huge structure with a large dome.  It's missing windows and many of the ones that are present are broken. The ground area has sandbags which can be part of the defense if attacked by the government forces. The natural countryside is also used in abundance for the film.  The river by which the rebels first come to Komona's village It's also the river that she goes back along to bury her parents and end the ghosts from visiting her at night.  The forest that the rebels hike through to head to battles with  the government forces. It's also in the forest where the new recruits have their first training and taste the milk which leads to hallucinations. The country roads  are also prominent as travel is a major part of the piece by motorcycle, foot and in the back of trucks and vans.

Costume designer Eric Poirier dresses the cast to suit the surroundings. Most of the child soldiers are dressed in tank tops and shorts.  Some of the commanders are dressed in military green and sport berets. The wardrobe of the characters does not vary significantly during the piece. Komona does wear a bit of Americana with an Abercrombie and Fitch top that barley covers her belly towards the end of her pregnancy. One of the comedic moments involves an attempt by the magician to take clothes from a line in a local village and being chased off by an older local woman wielding her own AK 47.

The soundtrack is filled with local African songs and orchestral pieces. The music is mainly subtle and does not overwhelm or dominate the action on the screen. The orchestral choices are heavy in strings, violins, violas which are foreboding and set the sorrowful mood of the main character for most of the film.

The film was cast both in Canada and the Congo.  Rachel Mwanza is excellent as the central character  Komona. Alain Lindo Mic Eli Bastein is very strong in a small role as the terrifying Rebel Commander. Serge Kanyinda also puts in a memorable performance as the Magician.  The local casting in the Congo were all good choices. Especially the villagers that laugh opening at the Magician despite that fact that he is armed with Kalashnikov rife as he enquiries forcefully during his search for a white rooster.

Rebelle (War Witch) places a romantic story in between the ongoing violence of a civil war. The two main protagonists attempt to escape the warrior life and manage to do so for a short period before violence and war finds them again.  Nguyen tells a tense, gripping story of the horrors of war fought by child soldiers in Africa. The film is not specific to a particular struggle thus it could easily apply to many different battles throughout the continent. Nguyen brings out the human element within the child solider and shows how they can be resilient in the face of horrific acts and actions that they have seen and performed themselves.  This is a film that I can definitely recommend.

*** 1/2  out of 4

Rebelle (War Witch) | Kim Nguyen | Canada | 2012 | 90 Minutes.

Inaugural Toronto Black Film Festival. 

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