The 14-year-old star of a Canadian film has won the best actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for her performance as a young African girl turned child soldier.

Congolese actress Rachel Mwanza played 12-year-old Congolese girl, Komona, in Quebec director Kim Nguyen's French-language drama War Witch (known as Rebelle in French). The film was the first Canadian production to screen in a competition at the German festival in 12 years.

Other Berlin winners

  • Golden Bear: Caesar Must Die, by Paolo and Vittorio Taviani of Italy.
  • Silver Bear: Just the Wind, by Bence Fliegauf, Hungary.
  • Best actor: Mikkel Boe Folsgaard in A Royal Affair, Denmark.
  • Best script: A Royal Affair, by Nicolaj Arcel and Rasmus Heisterberg, Denmark.
  • Best director: Barbara, by Christian Petzold, Germany.
  • Best artistic contribution: White Deer Plain, cinematographer Lutz Reitemeyer.

In the movie, Komona is snatched by rebels, forced to shoot her own parents and then trained as a soldier. The film follows her ordeal as the rebel leader Great Tiger's concubine and, later, her own penance for the things she had been forced to do.

Mwanza received the festival's Silver Bear award for best actress.

Mwanza, who once lived in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, had a difficult childhood in real life as well.

She was abandoned by her parents, who fled the Democratic Republic of Congo, and lived on the streets by herself, before she appeared in a documentary that brought her to the attention of Nguyen. 

At a press conference on Friday in Berlin, Mwanza told reporters that making the film gave her the opportunity to go to school, learn to read, and now she was happy with her life.

Nguyen on Friday called his young star "the most talented actress I have ever worked with."

Nguyen's movie was also up for the prestigious top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival, the Golden Bear for best film. However, it lost out to Caesar Must Die, an Italian documentary showing inmates of a high-security prison staging Shakespeare's Julius by Paolo Taviani and Vittorio Taviani.

The Silver Bear for best actor went to Mikkel Boe Folsgaard for his role in Royal Affair.

The Silver Bear for the best director went to German filmmaker Christian Petzold for Barbara, which depicts the life of a young physician in the 1980s who wants to escape from then communist East Germany to join her lover in West Germany.

The festival's eight-member jury included actor Jake Gyllenhaal and Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director of last year's Golden Bear-winning film, A Separation.

With files from the Associated Press