War Witch was greeted with warm applause on Friday at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was the first Canadian film to screen in competition at the German festival in 12 years.
Quebec director Kim Nguyen’s French-language drama (known as Rebelle in French) follows the traumatizing tale of a young girl kidnapped from her African village and turned into a child soldier.
The film played to a full house and the audience was very quiet — appearing riveted — during the screening, Nguyen said Friday in a teleconference from Berlin.
"First and foremost, I believe this is a film about human resilience in a time of war in the 21st century, more than the story of a child soldier," he said, emphasizing the element of redemption in the story.
Nguyen added that he wanted to use myth and fantasy to try to convey the bigger picture of who these soldiers are. He included magical elements, like the ghosts of his heroine parents, who haunt her even as she struggles to rebuild her life.
"Mostly it’s a story of hope for a young girl who got lost and is trying to find her way back," he said.
Cast of actors and newcomers
War Witch was filmed in the Congo with both trained Canadian actors and Congolese newcomers, including 14-year-old female star Rachel Mwanza. She plays Komona, a 12-year-old snatched by rebels, forced her to shoot her own parents and trained as a soldier. Her ordeal includes life as rebel leader Great Tiger's concubine and her own penance for the things she is forced to do.
Mwanza, from the capital city of Kinshasa, was abandoned by her parents and lived on the streets herself before appearing in a documentary that brought her to Nguyen's attention.
At its Berlin press conference Friday, Mwanza said making the film gave her the opportunity to go to school and learn to read and that she was now very happy with her life.
Nguyen expressed hope his young star — "the most talented actress I have ever worked with" — would be considered for a Golden Bear for performance.
Child's viewpoint of conflict
Nguyen, 37, said his goal was to give a child’s-eye view of conflict.
"I wanted to try to project the film that's seen from the eyes of this character. I guess that the politics of it are filtered through a child's eyes. I didn't want this to be an education film."
Nguyen also spoke of the difficulties of shooting in the Congo, which has many unstable areas. It was a logistical nightmare to import film-grade explosives and weapons and intense security had to be maintained at all times during filming, he said.
"I was thinking we would shoot guerrilla-style with hand-held cameras," Nguyen recalled, adding that the notion became impossible.
"At one point [filming in a rough area of Kinshasa], I looked back and saw a convoy of 36 vehicles behind me, including a security detail of 14 military men."
War Witch is the fourth film by the Quebec director, whose earlier works include The Marsh, La Cité and Truffe. It is in competition for the Golden Bear for best film — the top prize in Berlin — with 17 other titles. The winner will be named Saturday.