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Review: Oscar-Nominated 'War Witch' Sees Trauma Through the Haunted Lens of Magical Realism

Photo of Beth Hanna By Beth Hanna | Thompson on Hollywood February 28, 2013 at 1:50PM

“War Witch,” Canada’s Oscar-nominated Foreign-Language entry, centers on a young African girl’s abduction into a rebel army, her escape, and the slow, painful process of liberating herself from the army’s traumatic, devastating reach. It is directed by French-Canadian Kim Nguyen, and is the second feature film in history to be shot in Kinshasa of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
"War Witch"
"War Witch"

The music and sound design in “War Witch” is remarkable. The showstopper sequence happens early in the film, when Komona first sees her parents’ ghosts before battle. After the gunfire, men and boys lie dead on the ground, now painted white. As the mellow strains of African folk music kick in, the rebel soldiers' ghosts rise and walk somnambulistically through the forest, climbing trees. Later in the film, when Komona is free, she absentmindedly swings a heavy metal gate at the Butcher’s home. The reverberating, creaking sounds of the gate hold over into the next scene, transforming into an unsettling soundtrack as Komona suffers violent nightmares. She’s liberated from the rebels, but she’s also in a prison of traumatic memory. The everyday intrudes into dreams.

Mwanza, an acting newcomer discovered on the streets of Kinshasa, guides the film naturally. She has very few lines of dialogue, and much of Nicolas Bolduc’s observant cinematography focuses on the emotions subtly registered on her face. Because many of Komona’s most harrowing experiences occur when she would be at mortal risk to protest, Mwanza faces the difficult task -- and rises to the challenge -- of at once showing feelings and smothering them. It reminds us that strong performances are often powerful because of what is held back, and that strong characters (the stuff of great movies, really) are often fascinating because of their refusal to break.

This article is related to: Reviews, War Witch (Rebelle), Tribeca Film, Reviews, Palm Springs International Film Festival , Festivals, Festivals

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Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.