Rebelle captures resilience of young Africans

Montreal director Kim Nguyen's Rebelle has its final turn on the festival circuit at the Toronto International Film Festival before opening in commercial cinemas next week.

Child soldier story a hit for Montreal director Kim Nguyen

Rachel Mwanza in Rebelle or War Witch. (TIFF)

Montreal director Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle has its final turn on the festival circuit at the Toronto International Film Festival before opening in commercial cinemas next week.

The story of the film revolves around a 12-year-old girl named Komona, played by 14-year-old Rachel Mwanza, who is forced by rebels to shoot her own parents, then abducted to fight for their cause as an orphaned child soldier.

Rebelle or War Witch has earned accolades for Mwanza, a former street kid Nguyen plucked off the streets of Kinshasa in the Congo.

Mwanza was cast after an open casting call in Congo, which drew many street kids.

Nguyen used an unusual film technique to keep his inexperienced talent spontaneous and natural.

"We shot the film chronologically for the actors to know where they are in the story and we decided not to show the script to the actors," he said in an interview with CBC's Q cultural affairs show.

He prepared his actors each day by telling them their objective in each scene and suggesting what they should talk about, then let them react as they saw fit.

The result has been a torrent of praise for the acting, particularly for Mwanza. Rebelle  won both the best actress and best narrative film award at the Tribeca Film Festival and a Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival. It also is being suggested as Canada’s entry for a best foreign-language film Oscar.

Nguyen said he became interested in the stories of child soldiers after reading about Burmese twin brothers who had created their own child army.

"There is something about this mystery of pure Greek tragedy in modern times that I wanted to address so I started doing research into that," he said.

By the time he had the resources to film, Nguyen had set his story in sub-Saharan Africa and had decided to shoot in Congo, a country he said fed the story with its own irrepressible spirit.

Nguyen said he wanted to avoid a moralizing film about child soldier victims and the Western hero who saves them. Instead, he set out to capture the resilience of young Africans and their will to survive.

So while his young heroine is forced into sexual servitude, she also becomes involved in a tender love story with another teen.

Nguyen said one of his main concerns was exposing the young cast to scenes in which she is abused or in which teen soldiers must use weapons.

"It turned out to be a non-issue," he told Q. The teens were aware of these harsh realities, but Kinshasa is relatively free of conflict and no one was traumatized by having to relive a bad experience from their own life.

The filmmaker also committed to supporting Mwanza, paying for her education, room and board for the next four years.

Rebelle gets its commercial release in English Canada on Sept. 21.