'War Witch' Packs Powerful Child Soldier Story With Eye On Oscar

War Witch

A moving and emotional powerhouse, Canadian director Kim Nguyen's War Witch packs a punch worthy of the best of conflict thrillers, though more shocking is that the events depicted in the feature, which is Canada's contender for Best Foreign-language Oscar consideration, are happening every day. The story of a teen girl who is kidnapped by Congo rebels after she is forced to execute her parents left audiences aghast at AFI Fest where it screened this week.

Hailing from Canada, Nguyen may seem an unlikely filmmaker to take on some of the most notorious human rights tragedies of modern times, but he became interested in child soldiers after meeting a former youth who became lead a pack of others in a violent uprising in Africa.

"There was this kid named Johnny who was a child soldier who was nine years old and smoked cigars everyday. He said he woke up one day thinking he was a reincarnation of God," Nguyen told ML. "He had a [group] of soldiers that he lead in a rebellion against the government. The sheer madness of it all struck me and it pushed me to pursue this story."

The French-language feature, which won the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, stars non-pro Rachel Mwanza who plays a 14 year-old girl who becomes an important spiritual figure for a brutal leader of a band of violent rebels. The "Great Tiger" as he is known to his followers, believes she is a war witch who is capable of seeing government soldiers in the thick jungle. She is given preferential treatment, but she is also aware that if she fails in her job, she will likely be executed quickly. Another child soldier whom she calls "Magician" looks out for her and convinces her to run away with him. He tells her that three previous "war witches" were gunned down by the "Great Tiger" after they failed to warn him of the presence of government soldiers on previous occasions. The pair flee to one of Magician's relatives and are "married" though the rebels eventually track them down.

"Learning about child soldiers eventually lead me to Sub-Saharan Africa," said Nguyen. "I learned that there are actually more women child soldiers than men, which was surprising. What's tragic, of course, is that they're used as sexual slaves."

Initially, Nguyen thought of casting actual former child soldiers, but decided against it after meeting them because the trauma of what they had been through was too much.

"I had this idea of working with ex-child soldiers but they were just so broken. There was this stare and they were just so broken. So I had an idea to work with people who had similar tough backgrounds as many of the child soldiers, but hadn't actually [faced warfare]."

War Witch won Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival last Spring in addition to another Best Actress win for Mwanza. The festival's distribution wing, Tribeca Film will release the feature in theaters in early 2013 in addition to Video On Demand and other digital platforms.