Review - War Witch
War Witch is set in the Congo but is actually a Canadian production by director Kim Nguyen. It’s the story of 14 year old Komona telling her unborn child the details of the last 2 years of her life. Komona is kidnapped by the rebel army and is forced into being a child soldier to fight their war. During her time in the army she becomes the main commander’s ‘witch’, guiding him and others strategically through her supposed powers. The film tells of the many traumatic events that happen to her but also show times when she found love and solace. It also features some interesting dream-sequence like scenes involving the ‘spirit-guides’ that she hallucinates. This adds to the theme of witchcraft and superstition that runs through the film.
The striking thing about War Witch as a whole was how institutionalised the characters were to the violence that surrounds them. The kidnapping scene that opens the film involves minimal panic, people don’t try to fight back. There is the point that fighting against people with guns is a losing battle for these unprepared village people but their reactions just made the whole affair seem like it was an everyday occurrence. The character’s reactions are the main reason I say this, Komona seems completely emotionless, like she had been expecting this to happen.
This normalising of violence is also shown through Komona’s voiceover, which runs through the whole film, when she is sexually abused by her commander. Her voice is calm and the horrific events that are happening to her are told in a very matter-of- fact way. Generally speaking, when violence occurs in the film the sound is turned down to almost silence with what sound is left being heavily distorted. This effect adds to the helplessness of individuals not being able to stop the domino effect of violence throughout the film.
The character of ‘The Butcher’, Komona’s husband’s uncle, is an interesting contrast to the violence against humans shown in War Witch. He is a genuine butcher as opposed to rebels and soldiers, clearly shown as ‘butchers of people’. The scene of him preparing the chicken carcasses to be sold with his machete is more violent and shocking than the violence shown against humans. The sound remains normal so you hear the machete hit flesh. The contrast of the almost blasé attitude the characters seem to have to human bloodshed and the emphasized violence against the chicken carcasses is just another way of showing that the value of human life is cheap. Though War Witch is fictional, sadly it is easy to believe that it may be the true story of many a child soldier forced into warfare in Africa.
The dream sequences/hallucinations were particularly interesting. The ‘spirit-guides’ were African but painted white with white contact lenses. This gave them a very eerie effect, they looked somewhat like marble statues. Though frightening I found them quite aesthetically beautiful. With the sound there was definitely a rhythm running through the film. It was shown through various different mediums of sound such as a boy drumming on the side of a boat of swings of a machete against a tree.
War Witch was a very powerful and unique piece of cinema that appeared to show a realistic portrayal of a child soldier in Africa but weaved in a fairy tale like magic to soften some of the more hard to take truths.