TBFF Review: Rebelle (War Witch)

A narrator begins a story that she is telling to her yet unborn child. The opening scene of her story is set in a small village where two canoes full of rebel fighters with AK 47’s arrive unexpectedly. The rebels sack the place and round up all of the children. Those with the potential to fight are forced to kill their loved ones. If they refuse, their loved ones will suffer a more brutal fate at the hand of the rebels. Among this group is 12 year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza), who we soon learn is the narrator telling the story of her time at war.

The children are taken by the rebel leaders and taught what it is to be a rebel soldier. Their gun is now both their mother and father, and a rebel soldier must never lose their gun. Soon Komona gains the reputation of having a feel for locating government forces. She sees ghosts when fed a hallucinogenic milk-like substance from the trees in the woods. These ghosts warn her when the government troops are present. The rebel chief, Grand Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), believes that Komona’s powers stem from being a witch and ensures that she is not harmed by the other soldiers. The flip side of this is that her value is only based on the rebels’ success. Once the rebels suffer a setback, the validity of her powers are put into question.

After a close call with government forces, Komona is convinced to leave the rebels by the Magician. He explains that the Grand Tiger killed his last three witches once they fell out of favor. Even after leaving the rebels, Komona continues to have the dreams of ghosts and family members. Plus her life still remains in jeopardy as the rebel chief is determined to get his witch back.

Magic, spirituality, and superstition all play a major role in the community and the overall story. Rebelle mixes real events and fantasy in order to provide a glimpse into how tactical decisions are linked to fantastical elements. The rebels have a spiritual leader who directs the forces based on the outcome of casting stones. The group also has an Albino soldier, the Magician (Serge Kanyinda), who possesses rock-like amulets that can protect spirits from harm in war.

Writer/ Director Kim Nguyen displays the brutality of a child soldier’s life. Nguyen divides the film into chapters based on Komona’s age at the time of the action. Starting from when she is kidnapped at 12 and moving onwards. She highlights how rebels tear down a soldier’s past life and then a rebuilds it in a way that makes the rebels their new family. Once the purging of the past is complete, the soldiers are then forced to patrol in terrible conditions. They are given very little to eat, and are fed hallucinogenics to keep them moving.

Filmed on location in the Congo, Rebelle captures the many facets of the African landscape. Cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc presents a dreary landscape to match the sorrow and horror of the child soldier existence. The sky is often grey, washed out colours make up the mud, and the ghosts appear with white ashes covering their skin. There is some colour mainly during the interlude in the Magician’s village when Komona and the Magician spend time with his uncle the butcher. We see the bright colours in the village and the greens of the local vegetation. The other piece of colour is found within the rebel camp.

The soundtrack is filled with local African songs and orchestral pieces. The music is mainly subtle and does not overwhelm the action on the screen. The orchestral choices are heavy in strings, violins, and violas which are foreboding and establish the sorrowful mood of the main character in the film.

The cast is made up of actors from both Canada and the Congo. Rachel Mwanza is excellent as the central character Komona. Alain Lindo Mic Eli Bastein is very strong in a small role as the terrifying Rebel Commander. Serge Kanyinda also puts in a memorable performance as the Magician. The casting from the Congo is good as well. Especially the villagers who laugh opening at an armed Magician as he forcefully tries to get information from them.

Rebelle places a romantic story in between the ongoing violence of a civil war. The two main protagonists attempt to escape the warrior life only to have the war find them again. Nguyen tells a tense, gripping story of the horrors of war through the eyes of child soldiers in Africa. The film is not specific to a particular rebel fraction, thus it could easily be applied to many different battles throughout the continent. Nguyen brings out the human element within the child soldiers and shows how they can be resilient in the face of horrific acts. Whether it be actions that they have seen, or forced to perform themselves. Rebelle is a film that I definitely recommend.