'War Witch' Director On Racism In Global Film Distribution + Star Actress' Current Life Struggles

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by Tambay A. Obenson
September 14, 2012 2:15 PM
5 Comments
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Some worthwhile pieces of info - one that shouldn't really surprise you, and another that also may not be surprising, but is even more upsetting, but hopeful.

I saw director Kim Nguyen's dream-like, laconically-told Congolese drama Rebelle (War Witch) earlier this year, and was moved by it, although with a few concerns.

The film stars Rachel Mwanza, who gives a wonderfully naturalistic performance (she's a non-professional actor, living in the streets before she got the part) as 12 year old Komona, whom we follow on a 3 year journey, starting with her kidnapping by rebels from an unnamed village in which she and her family live, to becoming a child soldier. She's branded a witch by the rebel leader after she survives an ambush that left the rest of the unit she was dispatched with, dead, and becomes something of a treasure to the leader, who believes she possesses magical powers he can exploit for his own protection. She eventually is able to escape from the camp with an older albino soldier who pledges his love for her, and seeks her hand in marriage, and, for the very first time, albeit for a short period of time, she experiences the simple joys of living a peaceful life; but unfortunately, none of that lasts, and she's soon thrust back into the madness she once fled.

In the end, despite some irksome choices, War Witch is a poignant work, filled with strong, captivating images, and good performances (especially from star Rachel Mwanza, who I'm looking forward to seeing in some other work, reminiscent of an even younger and just as dynamic Quvenzhane Wallis from Beasts Of The Southern Wild); I appreciated the effort by Nguyen to tell this particular story from a young girl's perspective, which itself is refreshing, and distinguishes the film from other like titles.

The film is screening at the ongoing TIFF, and during a panel on Wednesday, director Nguyen expressed frustration at a number of things with regards to the film and its star - specifically, the struggles he's faced in trying to get the film picked up by distributors (because its lead is black), and later, sharing the young actresses plight in the DRC, where she's living a life that's far from a fairytale, despite all the accolades she and the film have received since it debuted at Berlin much earlier this year, and his attempts to help her.

First, regarding distribution of the film, from a THR write-up of the panel:

Nguyen, who is presenting his Berlin and Tribeca film festival prize-winner War Witch at the Toronto International Film Festival, said the market prospects of his unrecognizable black lead, Rachel Mwanza, early on stood in the way of foreign sales.“I had brutal answers that would tell me a Black main actor doesn’t sell, we’re not going to sell the movie in Japan. You hear that,” he told a TIFF panel on Canadian films in the world market.

Nothing we haven't already heard before in one way or another. So, no big surprise there. You hear it so much that it eventually becomes self-fulfilling.

I should note that Tribeca Film picked up USA rights to the film earlier this year, with plans to release it in 2013. And according to IMDBPro, it's also been sold to Belgium, France, Poland and The Netherlands for releases in 2012 and 2013.

Secondly, regarding star Rachel Mwanza's standard of living in the DRC, currently:

Nguyen said he's helped set up a four-year program for the now-15-year-old. The program includes getting her room and board, education and food in her hometown of Kinshasa. "When she's 18 she's going to get a small chunk of money so she can maybe buy a lot or start a business or whatever," he explained. "But the challenges are immense. Yesterday night I got an emergency email from our colleague who's checking up on her and the room and board that we gave her, the person started being erratic and she hit Rachel a couple of times, so we decided to take her out of there."From a distance it's really hard to manage, so she's in another place right now but she was crying all night. It's really tough..."

It reminds me of the child actors from Slumdog Millionaire, who, a year or so after that film raked in big box office, and lots of awards, were living lives that really weren't all that different than the lives they were living before the film.

Like the characters they played in the film, the actors, came from Mumbai slums, living in an impoverished neighborhood. But, despite the film's success, their standard of living didn't change much, and there was concern that they may have been exploited. Eventually, director Danny Boyle created a $700,000 trust fund for the actors, to support their education and living expenses.

There's always that question of exploitation in these kinds of scenarios. What happens to children like Rachel Mwanza when the lights stop flashing, and it's back to reality? Who's responsibility is it?

It's not like there's a blossoming film industry in the DRC like there is in the USA, which would give her options she doesn't currently have. Although it's obviously a good thing that director Nguyen is involved in ensuring that she's taken care of (and I should add that this isn't exactly some blockbuster movie that's raked in millions of dollars in box office).

But what happens next, especially when they're continents apart? Again, where does the responsbility lie?

Mwanza became homeless after her parents left for Angola and abandoned her, said Nguyen. The filmmaker reportedly has a friend in Kinshasa who's helping to arrange for Mwanza's care there.

"But he can't take her in because it's complicated there," said Nguyen."So we're just making sure he's like her guardian angel and he's checking up, but it's always complicated."

The trailer for War Witch follows below (hopefully a lot of you will get to see it):

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More: War Witch (Rebelle), Rachel Mwanza

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5 Comments

  • Lisa | September 14, 2012 4:31 PMReply

    Wow. A little harsh. He hired her and exposed her talent to the world, which she has used to go on to star in another film at TIFF, Kinshasa Kids. He maintains an ongoing interest and investment in her well-being. How many stories do we hear of film crews doing nothing of the sort for the people whose lives they use? We're always complaining that directors cast Hollywood actors to act in stories that could be more authentically told by the people who have lived it. Now, we're saying that giving her a role and starting her on a path that may lead to a better life (though still a complicated, rocky road) is a bad thing? And what he is complaining about re distribution is what almost every film that has a non-white cast is up against. To me, the greatest disservice to Rachel and all the other actors who told this story on film is to not have it widely seen. More people need to appreciate her immense talent and the talents of the entire cast.

  • Priss | September 16, 2012 1:48 PM

    I agree with you Lisa.

  • SayWhat | September 14, 2012 2:26 PMReply

    If she was living in the streets what guardian signed to give her permission to be cast in a film? No director should just scoop a homeless child off the street and use them to sell a film. Seems to me that the child was exploited by the filmmaker...and now the filmmaker has the nerve to complain that he's being mistreated because he can't complete the exploitation by fully cashing in in all markets. What an asshole.

  • Viridia | October 17, 2012 6:04 PM

    I think you should make an effort to watch the whole film before carping about exploitation. The issue of child soldiers in Africa is one of the most horrifying situations in the contemporary world, and Rachel Mwanza has done a superb, heroic job (under Nguyen's direction) portraying a the brutal exploitation of kids with no way out. You would do better to thank Kim Nguyen and Rachel for their work, and get as many people as you can to become aware of this tragic problem, and honor their contribution to a cause that needs far more international attention and support.

  • Brent | September 15, 2012 2:38 PM

    Thank you Sawwhat. The exotic-fication of black people continues. They can't make a movie showing Africans as, I dunno --NORMAL people! So instead we another Hotel Rwanda/Last king of Scotland crap. If Hollywood was to be believed there shouldn't be any black people in africa, they should all be dead! But that's all they know of Africa and all they want to know.

    Filmmakers, there are other things going on in Africa than war. A lot more. Shame the deaths of Africans is all that interests you.

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