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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.
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"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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