Pop culture essays, criticism, fistfights

Tribeca 2012: War Witch

The 2012 Tribeca Film Festival runs from April 18th to April 29th. Jeff Hart and Jeremiah White are there and will be seeing a shitload of movies.

War Witch begins with Komona (Rachel Mwanza, discovered by the director on the streets of Congo during location scouting) being kidnapped from her village by bloodthirsty rebels. They waste no time indoctrinating her into their vile ways; she's forced to execute her own parents, and then bonded to an AK-47 through a series of pseudo-mystical brainwashing rituals. When she begins seeing the ghosts of dead soldiers in the woods - ghosts that tell her where enemy soldiers are hiding - she's celebrated as a war witch, a good luck charm that mysterious rebel leader The Great Tiger wants to keep close. However, Komona’s budding relationship with another teen soldier, an albino named Magician for his apparent voodoo skills, soon has her fleeing the rebel camp in search of a peaceful life.

The plight of child soldiers, genocide, third world poverty; War Witch seems like a film made not so much to tell a story but to confront a first world audience with these bracing and likely alien problems. Komona spends much of the harrowing third act in a dirty secondhand Aeropostale shirt. The walls of a hut are papered with Obama "hope" flyers. Director Kim Nguyen’s unnamed African country is littered with Western iconography that seems present to scold the art house cinema-goers that choose to undertake this endurance test.

I’d never argue against raising awareness about Africa, but I’m not sure Canadian director Nguyen, who was inspired by a newspaper article, is the man for the job. The strength of the film’s narrative can't keep pace with its self-righteousness. It methodically makes its way down the atrocity checklist, the narrative arc familiar and unsurprising. There are some brief reprieves from the dead-eyed cruelties, moments when the kids are allowed to be kids, although they're still toting around their ever-present rifles. Those moments, along with stoic narration from Komona to her unborn child, allow characters to take shape, somewhat. For the most part, they respond to situations in whatever way will get them quickest to the next awaiting horror.

There's a strain of spirituality running through War Witch that I found vexing. That Komona can commune with the dead is taken for granted. When she strangles a friend in her sleep because the rifle she's been brainwashed into cherishing is gone, it is treated as PTSD. When she sees ghosts, however, it is treated with credulity, not as another mechanism of the ugly conflict she's been conscripted into. Doesn't this only glorify one of the underlying reasons these children end up killing each other? They’re playing pretend with live ammunition, caught up in the bullshit mysticism of their adult exploiters. The Great Tiger is most assuredly a charlatan and Komona is just a child with an overactive imagination; yet his enchanted rifle does mow down a platoon of soldiers, and her ghost-chasing is eventually her salvation. Isn’t this fairy tale approach ultimately more harmful than it is illuminating?

VERDICT:  Skip it.

On the positive side: some breathtaking visuals.

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