More than two weeks after seeing “Rebelle” at the Calgary International Film Festival, I can’t stop thinking about this Canadian film.

Rachel Mwanza stars in this story written, directed and co-produced by Kim Nguyen. The movie was selected for the Berlin Film Festival main competition (the first by a Canadian director in 13 years) and has been selected as Canada’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category for the Academy Awards.

But does the movie live up to its critical acclaim. Yes and oui (the film is entirely in French).

It’s a disquieting story of a young girl abducted from her village in Africa (the movie was filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo), forced to kill her parents (she’s told if she doesn’t shoot them, they will be hacked to death with machetes), then drugged and dragged across the jungle to fight a nameless war.

The film is unique in that it’s told from the point of view of a female child soldier. As a pre-pubescent girl, she is expected to perform equally well on the battlefield, and then in the bedroom of the mud huts of the army’s leaders. Horrifying as all that is, the director portrays this “double duty” matter-of-factly, but not in a way that is exploitive–a tricky balance that not many directors are able to achieve.

Ghostly visions and witchcraft

The trauma of shooting her own parents actually serves to give her a purpose and helps her carve out a place in the hierarchy of the military operation. Since she is haunted by the ghosts of her parents, her drug-fuelled hallucinations are interpreted by the superstitious soldiers as visions. She is then elevated as a “War Witch” and expected to predict ambushes, a responsibility that most certainly will lead to disappointment later on.

Despite the dark nature of this story, there is respite in the form of a love story, although it is short-lived. Mwanza’s character, Komona catches the eye of Serge Kanyinda’s “Magician,” another unusual character who takes on supernatural powers in the eyes of his captors, likely due to his Albino-like qualities.  The Magician knows Komona’s favour with the leadership will not last so the two eventually escape and find their way back to his family for a time. It’s a sweet interlude of heartbreaking innocence and uplifting in its own way as the two experience a glimpse of happiness before it all goes to hell again.

Men with guns: does it matter why?

This is a story that doesn’t dwell on the why. There is no explanation of the politics of the situation, other than a vague reference to the so-called “conflict minerals” used in many of our Western electronic devices (a nice touch to raise awareness of an issue that is not well-known). These are men with an abundance of guns who are operating at the most “base” level, in a struggle to the death for control over scant natural resources. They will stop at nothing.

Mwanza portrays Komona brilliantly. She is obsessed with returning to her village to bury her parents perhaps knowing that without a goal, her young, brutal life is not worth living.

Just saying no to hopelessness

When she reaches her village, about to give birth to a baby she bears as a result of her rape at the hands of the rebel army leader, she is unable to find any trace of her parents, other than a few small objects. It’s a testament to her strength and intelligence that she recognizes these meagre remnants of her parents must serve a larger purpose–that of helping her bury the past.

This type of movie could have very easily become another tale of African hopelessness and despair. But the director instead chose to focus on Komona’s stoic willingness to continue, despite the odds.

Such a powerful reminder to us all, when we feel small and insignificant in our daily lives.

Related news: War Witch Director Kim Nguyen on racism in global film distribution

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