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War Witch (2012)

The Sorcerer's Apprentice's Machine Gun

I can't imagine what other countries must think of U.S. cinema. We export multi-million-dollar garbage and expect them to help us make it into billion-dollar garbage (which, admittedly, they do). But rarely do we import foreign-language movies and make them hits. No surprise there. Really, what chance does a film with words along the bottom of the screen have in a marketplace whose consumers can't be bothered to read (or demand) warning labels on their food?

When it comes to filmic sophistication, most Americans are like Kim Kardashian: we're so caught up in glamour, excess and non-challenging palatability that we assume there's nothing better in life than having luxury served to us on a silver platter. This attitude has allowed poisonous memes like "There's nothing good in theatres between January and May" to gain a foothold in pop culture. I know this because I'm guilty of such thoughts myself.

The truth, of course, has been known by people much wiser than me for a very long time. To quote Harvey Danger, "If you're bored, then you're boring". If the dearth of big-ticket Hollywood entertainment has kept you away from the theatre since late-August (or, worse yet, forced you to settle for The Incredible Burt Wonderstone), might I suggest heading away from the mall and hitting up your local art-house theatre? Yes, that means you'll have to experience strangely dressed people who talk funny and share different values than yours--but don't let the loitering lobby hipsters keep you from seeing some really exciting movies.

Case in point: Kim Nguyen's Oscar-nominated masterpiece War Witch opens today at The Music Box in Chicago. Set in modern-day South Africa, the film stars Rachel Mwanza as Komona, a fourteen-year-old girl who was kidnapped from her village at age twelve and forced to join the anti-government rebellion of Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). Her first test of worthiness: mow down her parents with a machine gun or watch them be hacked to death at the hands of Great Tiger's brutish second-in-command (Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien). I've just described the opening five minutes, which are likely its most tame, thematically.

Komona and a handful of other children are taken deep into the jungle where older boys teach them how to handle and fire weapons, move about undetected, and get so high enough off a hallucinogenic tree sap that they'll be ready to fight military-trained soldiers. During an early skirmish, Komona takes point and encounters a pair of pale, ghostly figures who warn her to run. Seconds later, the rest of her first-wave party is wiped out in a torrent of machine gun fire.

Whether because of the drugs or a full-on mental break, Komona is instantly hailed as having other-worldly gifts. She's taken to Great Tiger's compound and anointed his "war witch"--a grand advisor and strategist whose job is to keep psychic tabs on the enemy. She also develops a relationship with Magician (Serge Kanyinda), her male counterpart in the organization. As they fall deeper in love, their desire to strike out on their own grows until they have no choice but to escape Great Tiger or die in some pointless battle.

Besides the extraordinarily naturalistic and heartbreaking performances by everyone in the cast, what sets War Witch apart are the odd moments of supernatural fantasy that Nguyen places around unexpected corners. So immersed in superstition are Great Tiger and his minions that the audience is left to wonder whether or not Komona's ghosts are real, the product of a substance-abused brain, or the result of traumatic brain-washing by an extremely charismatic and deadly leader. At times, Magician seems to buy the line he's been sold and which he sells, but the rules of his inner cosmos are unclear: he can create "magic" necklaces of protection, but is unable to conjure a white rooster when Komona tells him it's the only way to win her hand in marriage.

In the crazy alternate reality in which all movies exist along the same timeline, and in the same universe, I imagine Nicolas Cage's Yuri Orlov character from Lord of War selling arms to Great Tiger. This same world is inhabited by the fairies and eye-ball-handed monsters that made Pan's Labyrinth so heady and moving. But Nguyen's almost documentarian approach to the material pushes his messages beyond the realm of escapist entertainment, forcing the audience to remember their own complicity in the real-world tragedies he's illustrating.

Look no further than the faded Abercrombie t-shirt one character wears, or the bucket of shoes and boots looted from dead child soldiers that their replacements must wear--not to mention the finely crafted details on every weapon of war depicted in the film. Watching this film, you might shush the guilty whispers that sound strangely like shopping-mall muzak, but they won't be silenced.

Despite this undercurrent of righteousness, War Witch doesn't play as a Message Movie. In fact, it rarely feels plotted at all--nor does it meander. Each of its ninety minutes is full of wonder, sorrow, and uncertainty, which are far more fun to experience at the cinema than mere plot-twist guessing games. It's also a haunting portrait of a beautiful land torn apart by political and religious nonsense. From the abandoned monuments to progress overrun by garrulous, teenaged squatters; to the flimsy tin-and-wood shacks populated by people who live in constant fear of being drawn into deadly conflict; War Witch carries the tune of a weeping Mother Nature who wants nothing more than for her children to chill out and enjoy all she has to offer.

This is a very special, unforgettable film--which is why you won't see it playing anywhere near Oz the Great and Powerful or Jurassic Park 3D. But if you can drum up the mental and emotional courage to seek out War Witch, I promise you'll leave the theatre with a greater sense of pride in the human spirit and appreciation for bold, passionate filmmaking than you've had in the last six months. Hell, maybe even the last six years.

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