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Originally published Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 3:00 PM

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‘War Witch’: Odyssey of a child-soldier

A review of “War Witch,” a drama about a 12-year-old girl pressed into fighting a rebellion in an unnamed African village.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie Review 3.5 stars

‘War Witch,’ with Rachel Mwanza, Alain Bastien, Serge Kanyinda, Ralph Prosper, Mizinga Mwinga. Written and directed by Kim Nguyen. 90 minutes. Not rated; for mature audiences (contains violence). In French and Lingala with English subtitles. Uptown.

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“I have to tell you how I became a soldier with the rebels,” says Komona (Rachel Mwanza), in soft voice-over at the beginning of Kim Nguyen’s wrenching drama “War Witch.” She was a 12-year-old girl when the rebels came to her isolated village in Africa, forcing her to shoot her parents (otherwise, says the rebel leader, they’ll be killed with machetes) and kidnapping her for their army. (The village and region aren’t named, but the film was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.) A quiet survivor, Komona learns to operate an assault rifle — and how to “make the tears go inside my eyes.”

Nguyen divides the film (a nominee for best foreign-
language film at the Oscars this year) into three parts: The first act shows us Komona’s new life, and how she comes to be known as a “war witch,” possessing mysterious powers making her valuable to the leader. (She doesn’t argue; these “powers” make her safer). In the second part, at age 13, Komona finds love with another child soldier: 15-year-old “Magician” (Serge Kanyinda), whom she briefly marries. With him, you see her smiling and laughing and it’s jarring; this tense warrior is, suddenly, a little girl again. The third act brings an end to their happiness, and finds 14-year-old Komona raped and pregnant, telling her child-to-be, “I don’t know if God will give me the strength to love you.”

Mwanza, a teen from the Congo who’s never acted before, has an uncanny ability to look simultaneously childlike and terribly old and weary. This girl wields a gun as if it’s an extension of her body; it is, as the rebel leader has taught her, her father and mother. Nguyen, astonishingly, manages to wring something vaguely like a happy ending from this tragic story. Komona is traveling toward a new beginning, finally laying the dusty ghosts of her past to rest.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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