War Witch has achieved a rare distinction: It's a dramatic movie about Sub-Saharan Africa that stars black African actors who don't speak English that is still attracting U.S. audiences. Think about it. Nearly every drama set in Sub-Saharan Africa that's found a recent cinematic home in the West has a major white character ( Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland, The Constant Gardner), or has a black American portraying an African (Hotel Rwanda, The Last King of Scotland), or is so contrived that its African setting is incidental to the storyline (Bruce Willis in Tears of the Sun).
War Witch is different. And it already has Oscar buzz, garnering a nomination for Best Foreign Language Film of 2012. The movie is screening Sunday, January 13, at the Rafael Film Center, as part of For Your Consideration, the Center's annual series of Oscar-submitted foreign-language movies. War Witch tells the story of a 12-year-old girl named Komona who's forced to be a child soldier. Kill or be killed -- that's her stark choice. In between the violence (her parents are the first victims) and sexual predation from the rebels' leader, she couples up with another child soldier -- a love pursuit that anchors the film's middle passage. First-time actress Rachel Mwanza, a child of the streets who director Kim Nguyen found in a casting call in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, plays Komona, whose character narrates the film.
"What drew me to the story was the dramatic power of the story of child soldiers," says Nguyen in a phone interview the day before a sold-out screening at the Palm Springs International Film Festival. "I thought it was very relevant for our times -- a true Greek tragedy."
Nguyen is Canadian, and it was Canada that submitted War Witch for Oscar consideration, so Nguyen's work is not a completely African film. Still, another riveting drama that's screening at the Rafael Film Center, Nairobi Half Life, was made by a native Kenyan -- granted, with the assistance of the German director Tom Tykwer (Run Lola Run), whose production company has Kenyan filmmakers workshop their movies.
The reality for African cinema is that it needs help from the West – both in making films, and in presenting them to a wider audience. But that begs the question: How far should Western filmmakers intervene in telling Africa's stories? Nguyen tells me he wrestled with a key moment in War Witch: Whether Komona pulls the trigger herself when she has to kill her parents with an automatic weapon, or whether the rebel soldiers commanding her should grip the trigger for her. In researching his film in Africa, Nguyen interviewed child soldiers who said they fired their weapons themselves. Tugged a bit by Western guilt at how to represent Africa, Nguyen debated whether to soften Komona's first killing scene.
"I was thinking, 'Maybe I should make the character not responsible,' but the truth of the matter is that these kids are told to shoot their parents, and the real troubling thing is that they do -- and no one pulls on the trigger for them," says Nguyen. "It's an example of how I wrote War Witch just the way it is. I had to represent it the way it is."
The subject of child soldiers has been in the news for more than a decade, primarily in headlines from Africa but also from Asian countries like Myanmar, and it was a series of reports about Myanmar's teenage soldiers that first prompted Nguyen to consider a movie that dramatized their lives. Around the world, tens of thousands of children under the age of 18 -- some younger than 10 -- fight with rebel groups or with government forces, according to the nonprofit group Child Soldiers International. Scores of documentaries have chronicled the phenomenon, as have a few feature filmmakers, like France's Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, whose 2008 drama, Johnny Mad Dog, uses former child soldiers from Liberia to portray on-screen killers in an African country.
If there's a pattern to recent African films that have found an audience in the West, it's that they all have bloody violence at their core. Tsotsi, the South African drama that won the 2005 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, is a kaleidoscope of shooting, knifing, and other mayhem, though it's also the story of a gang member discovering his humanity through a chance encounter with a baby. The Last King of Scotland chronicles the violent reign of Uganda's Idi Amin Dada, while Tears of the Sun is Hollywood at its worst, with Willis-led forces rescuing a white female doctor from an intra-Nigerian bloodbath. The image of Africa as a continent of savages and uncontained people is one that cinema has perpetuated since the first Tarzan movies. The Kenyan writer Binyavanga Wainaina, best known for his Granta essay "How to Write About Africa," bemoans those who paint with stereotypical brushstrokes of the continent, who make Africa seem awash in violence, corruption, and other pandemics, without elucidating Africa's many layers of normalcy.
Wainaina's criticisms could certainly be applied to other continents -- America is certainly stereotyped through the cinema of other countries -- and War Witch dramatizes the nuanced lives of child soldiers, showing, for example, the way that teenage soldiers get both sickened by their killing sprees and also desensitized to them. Nguyen also shows the child soldiers playing around in their free time, and we get extended glimpses of everyday families that are just trying to make it through each day.
Nguyen, who is 38, took 10 years to make War Witch, partly so he could get the screenplay right. The characters in War Witch speak Lingala, a native language in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (where the film was shot), and also French, which was Congo's colonial language and is still widely spoken there. The actors in Nairobi Half Life speak Swahili. Director David Gitonga's drama about a would-be actor who moves to the big city and takes part in gang violence to support himself is the first film that Kenya ever submitted for Oscar consideration. The movie is a successor to the long tradition of African cinema made by African filmmakers -- a timeline that includes Senegal's Ousmane Sembène, "the father of African film," who made critically acclaimed movies for 40 years until his death in 2007; Mali's Cheick Oumar Sissoko, a similarly decorated director, whose 30-year career has included screenings at the San Francisco International Film Festival; and Senegal's Djibril Diop Mambéty, whose 1973 masterpiece Touki Bouki won big at Cannes and in 2010 was named the 52nd-best film in World Cinema by the British film magazine Empire.
War Witch has already won some big prizes. It won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival, which gave the Best Actress award to Mwanza, who won the same award at the Berlin International Film Festival. In the early stages of War Witch, one film distributor told Nguyen that his film couldn't be sold in a country like Japan because audiences would never relate to main characters that are black Africans. Months later, Nguyen sent the distributor an email: A Japanese distributor had bought the rights to War Witch and the film will be shown there. "That was the best sale ever," Nguyen says. Still, Nguyen admits that as he sought financing for War Witch, he briefly debated whether to add a Western character to the script, to make the movie more marketable. "When I was in financing mode, I must admit that there was internal pressure to put a white character in the film," Nguyen says. "Not as a savior, but perhaps a character who escapes from his own country and flees from his own torment and is living in Africa. It was the worst idea ever."
To me, War Witch has a chance to make a lot of Best Film lists. Nguyen brings child soldiering right into the solar plexus in a way that newspaper stories and even documentaries could never approach. Nguyen's characters are forced to make extreme choices that have immediate repercussions on their lives. What would we do if we were in their shoes? Africa is the backdrop to War Witch, but the continent has no monopoly on military abuse of children. War Witch tells a story that people could label as "African," but that label would only go so far. As Nguyen puts it, "These are human characters who live in a hermetic world. Within that world, you see the rest of the world."
War Witch screens Sunday, January 13, 8:30pm at the Rafael Film Center in San Rafael as part of For Your Consideration, the center's annual series of Oscar-submitted foreign-language movies. Nairobi Half Life screens Sunday, January 13, 6:30pm. For tickets and more information, visit cafilm.org.