Canada's War Witch advances in Oscar race

Canadian film War Witch, the French-language drama about a Congolese child soldier, took a step closer to the Oscars on Friday.

Montrealer's child soldier film acclaimed on film festival circuit

Canadian film War Witch, the French-language drama about a Congolese child soldier, took a step closer to the Oscars on Friday.

The film, alternately known by its French title Rebelle, is one of the nine movies longlisted for the Academy Awards, organizers revealed Friday.

The Kim Nguyen film, which has been acclaimed on the international film festival circuit, revolves around a 12-year-old girl who is forced by rebels to shoot her own parents before being abducted to fight for their cause as an orphaned child soldier.

Making the list of semi-finalists "is a great honour because the competition is crazy this year. The films that are there are just mind-blowing. It's a real privilege," Montrealer Nguyen told CBC News on Friday.

Rachel Mwanza has earned accolades for her star turn in War Witch. (TIFF)

"When we talk about a global village, that's when it kind of hits you — all these great filmmakers," he said, adding that being a contender alongside Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke, whom he respects greatly, "It's such an honour. At the same time, it almost feels like the world gets smaller when these things happen."

The nine contenders are:

  • Austria - Amour, directed by Michael Haneke.
  • Canada - War Witch (also known as Rebelle), directed by Kim Nguyen.
  • Chile - No, directed by Pablo Larraín.
  • Denmark - A Royal Affair, directed by Nikolaj Arcel.
  • France - The Intouchables, directed by Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano.
  • Iceland - The Deep, directed by Baltasar Kormákur
  • Norway - Kon-Tiki, directed by  Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg.
  • Romania - Beyond the Hills, directed by Cristian Mungiu.
  • Switzerland - Sister, directed by Ursula Meier.

Altogether, 71 countries submitted movies for Oscar foreign film consideration this year.

Praise for young star

War Witch has earned widespread accolades for its young star, 14-year-old Rachel Mwanza, whom Nguyen plucked off the streets of Kinshasa after an open casting call that drew many street kids.

When Mwanza won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival in February, she became the first sub-Saharan African ever to win the honour. She subsequently won a best actress prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in March.

So, Nguyen said, she has had some familiarity with receiving international recognition.

"Now, we mostly focus on her [learning] to read, learning to write. Right now, she works with a tutor in Kinshasha. And I guess if she wants to make use of the recognition that she got in the past year, the most important thing is to get those basics down — and maybe learn a bit of English too, because she's mostly learning French. But it's up to her."

The list of nine will now be whittled down to 5 finalists that will be unveiled along with all other Academy Award nominees on Jan. 10.

"There are really, really good films this year," Nguyen said when asked about his odds of making the Oscars shortlist.

"The only thing I can say is ... we adopted Che Guevara's philosphy: 'Be realistic, ask for the impossible.' So that's our mindset and it's been that way for the last few months."

The Academy Awards take place in Los Angeles on Feb. 24.