Amongst the big budget blockbusters and superhero epics of 2012, one captivating indie film stuck with me after I saw it at the 21st Philadelphia Film Festival.
Now available with XFINITY On Demand, “War Witch” is the story of a 12-year-old girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza), who is abducted from her village during a civil war in sub-Saharan Africa and forced to be a child soldier. When a hallucination saves Komona from an enemy ambush, the rebel leader employs her as his “war witch,” until she eventually flees for a better life with an albino boy called Magician (Serge Kanyinda). Unfortunately, their life on the run yields heartbreaking consequences.
Presented in French and Lingala languages with English subtitles, “War Witch” was produced in Canada and nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category at last month’s Independent Spirit Awards and Academy Awards. Despite its compelling story, producers Pierre Even and Marie-Claude Poulin knew it was a difficult story to tell.
“The director came to us three-and-a-half years ago with this script,” Even told me on the Spirit Awards red carpet. “We loved the script and we thought, well, this is a crazy story, it’s un-producible, bet let’s do it. We felt that the power of the script was so strong, it was so moving and so challenging, but for us, we couldn’t pass. It was something we had to do.”
Perhaps the films’ greatest triumph is the performance of its leading lady Rachel Mwanza, a former street child who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1997 and abandoned by her parents at a young age. “War Witch” is her first acting role ever.
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“We had casting in the Congo and Rachel was in a documentary [‘Kinshasa Kids’] the year before we shot in Congo, and one of the people we hired for the casting sent us the tape and that was it,” Even recalled. “We saw man, many girls, but when we saw Rachel, we couldn’t see anyone else.”
When I asked Rachel, who doesn’t speak English, where she found the inner strength she so skillfully portrays in this emotionally complex film, she relayed her thoughts through Even, who was impressed by her answer.
“She’s too humble,” Even said. “She said, ‘You just have to be you. It comes from what you’re doing. That’s it.’ She went through so much. She was abandoned by her parents and that gave her the power to survive many situations. So, in the film, that’s what you see on the screen.”
Poulin added, “She told us, in the tough scenes, when Kim [Nguyen, the director] wanted her to cry or to feel pain, she’d just try to remember what she lived through and that’s how it would come out.”
Mwanza was an unusual site on a red carpet – quiet and guarded amongst Hollywood’s biggest stars. The actress obtained a visa just in time to travel from Congo to Los Angeles for the big awards weekend, but she arrived in Tinseltown already an award winner. Rachel took home the Best Actress trophies at the 2013 Canadian Screen Awards, the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival and the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, where she accepted the Silver Bear award from actor Jake Gyllenhaal.
“She didn’t know who he was,” Poulin quipped. “But he was very nice.”
Now through a limited theatrical release (courtesy of Tribeca Film) and home viewing with XFINITY On Demand, Mwanza and “War Witch” are finally getting the wide exposure they deserve, and audiences are getting a glimpse at independent storytelling at its best.
“It’s a great story. Great filmmaking, as well,” Even said. “People sometimes think that the film is too though, but, no, it’s a story about hope and redemption. We see that, in this film, whatever we do as human beings, there is always hope. Whatever we go through, someone can bring hope for a future life.”
“War Witch” is now available with XFINITY On Demand. Click here to begin the ordering process.
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.