Efforts are underway to bring the African teen star of War Witch to this year's Oscar bash.
Former street kid Rachel Mwanza is the celebrated actress at the heart of Canada's contender for the best foreign-language film prize. The film is also known by its French-language name, Rebelle.
Producers Marie-Claude Poulin and Pierre Even say they've applied for a visa to bring Mwanza to Los Angeles from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They say the 16-year-old is eager to visit the glitzy celebrity capital, where she hopes to meet music superstars Beyoncé and Rihanna.
In War Witch, Mwanza plays a 12-year-old girl who is abducted and forced to become a child soldier. The French-language drama, directed by Montreal's Kim Nguyen, is the third Canadian feature in as many years to compete in the best foreign-language film category.
The Academy Awards will be handed out Feb. 24 in Los Angeles.
"She's very thrilled with just the idea of maybe seeing Beyoncé or Rihanna on the red carpet," Even says from Montreal.
"That's her main goal in life. Hopefully one of these two singers will be at the Oscars so that she can get an autograph."
Applications filed for U.S., Canadian visits
All that depends on whether Mwanza can secure a U.S. visa. Even says an application was filed late last week at the embassy in Kinshasa but that Mwanza also needs to undergo an interview with U.S. authorities to prove she won't try to remain in the United States.
He hopes she can visit for about five days, noting that they plan on two days of post-Oscar interviews to promote the film's staggered release in the United States, which begins March 1. After that, Even says they hope to bring Mwanza north of the border for more awards ceremonies including the Canadian Screen Awards in Toronto on March 3 and the Jutras in Montreal on March 17.
"We believe [that] is a good thing to reassure the U.S. authorities that she won't stay in the U.S. because she's coming with us to go to the Canadian Screen Awards," he notes.
"She's going to be at many award ceremonies in a few weeks."
Mwanza also needs a visa to enter Canada but Poulin says she doesn't expect that to be a problem since the teen spent two months here last year when the film made its Canuck premiere. Mwanza has also travelled to Berlin and Paris for other War Witch screenings, which should help her application, the producers add.
War Witch team her new family
The teen currently lives with fellow War Witch actress Marie Dilou in Kinshasa, says Even. He, Poulin and Nguyen have promised to pay for her education and room and board until she turns 18.
"It was Kim's idea at first," says Even. "We still feel responsibility towards Rachel because she gave us so much with the film."
'She's intelligent and she knows that she has to work hard because she's way behind other kids of her age. But she knows that and she really wants to learn because she wants to change her life' —Producer Pierre Even
"I don't think we anticipated it," Poulin adds.
"We never had much discussion about it because it was natural for us to do that. And I guess in life you pick and choose your charities or who you help and what you do and this is one of the ones we're picking. [At the Berlin International Film Festival, Rachel] talked about how she was abandoned and then she looked at Kim and Pierre and I at the table and she said: And now this is my family. And I think it was felt by us as well."
Mwanza and her siblings were abandoned by their parents when she was young, notes Even. At age six, she ended up with her grandmother, who later lost her job.
"And she just told them: I can't feed you. You have more chances in the street than staying with me," says Even.
From there, Mwanza spent about three years on her own.
"The street children in Kinshasa are very common and problematic," says Poulin.
'One in a million'
"There's hundreds of thousands of street children ... and unfortunately the older ones often become thieves and not such good people so we're very happy that Rachel, given her will and intelligence, that we were able to help her get out of that life."
Mwanza's life began to change when she appeared in a documentary that caught the attention of Nguyen, Even and Poulin. From the moment he saw her, Even says he knew Mwanza was special, calling her "one in a million."
When he and Nguyen travelled to Kinshasa to meet her in person they were blown away again. "She had an intensity that no other girls had and we decided to cast her at the time and she was living mostly on the streets," he says of Mwanza, who went on to win best actress awards at last year's Berlin International Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival.
Back then, Mwanza had never been to school and didn't know how to read or write. Things are different today.
"She sent me an email through Facebook at Christmas and I was amazed because she could write an email which is really something great," says Even.
"She's intelligent and she knows that she has to work hard because she's way behind other kids of her age. But she knows that and she really wants to learn because she wants to change her life and do something with her life."