11/04/12 - Chinese 1, 3:45 p.m.
11/06/12 - Chinese 6, 1:45 p.m.
By Andrew Johnson
It would be easy for a film about child soldiers to crumble under the weight of its dour and depressing subject matter, but WAR WITCH sidesteps this problem by being a character-driven film rather than an issue-driven one. Kim Nguyen’s latest offering follows Komona, a young African girl abducted from her village at the age of 12 after being forced to shoot her parents. In the hands of a les assured filmmaker this premise might become an excuse for a laborious exercise in “poverty porn,” but Nguyen treats his subject matter with greater respect, choosing to depict suffering through the eyes of a child rather than the desensitized gaze of an adult—are not the young often more capable of processing horror than the old?
Nguyen inserts elements of magical realism into the proceedings, giving them an eerie and otherworldly atmosphere while also accentuating the thematic subtext. Komona has visions of the dead standing motionless around her, caked in white ash. Her parents are her most frequent visitors, and their presence is a constant reminder of her sins. She may have killed them in order to survive, but they weren’t given a proper burial, and until their souls are laid to rest hers never will be.
The second act plays more like a coming-of-age tale, a MOONRISE KINGDOM-esque romance set against the backdrop of poverty and war-torn Africa. The key difference is that these two youngsters are just old enough to act on their hormonal impulses, something which strikes me as just a bit too subversive for a filmmaker like Anderson, and perhaps for mainstream Western audiences. I usually consider myself pretty open-minded when it comes to sex and gender issues, but when confronted with the prospect of Komona having sex with a fellow soldier (they’re so young!), I found myself forced to grapple with my own assumptions and preferences regarding appropriate sexual behavior. I wondered, were they ready for such intimacy? Was this really the best thing for them right now? Couldn’t it bring more trouble than it was worth?
In retrospect, it seems so silly of me to think so. I had fallen prey to the common cultural myth perpetuated by Hollywood that violence is a more acceptable element of youth than sex. Watching children murder their elders was horrible enough, but it was the idea of teenage sexuality that upset me the most! The brilliance of Nguyen’s screenplay is that it acknowledges common Western perceptions of sexuality in Africa as a tragic act inextricably linked to rape and HIV and gradually turns them on its head.
Here, teenage sexuality isn’t a cause for concern, it’s a cause for celebration, a relieving respite from the oppressive and manipulative sex of adulthood. Komona’s body may be a tool to satiate adult (blood)lust, but it never ceases to be hers, and when she becomes empowered to use it to act on her own desires, she reclaims her innocence rather than losing it. In the haze of young love her sins are momentarily washed away, and the endless possibilities of childhood are instantly possible again.
It’s a small miracle that WAR WITCH didn’t turn out completely unwatchable. Nguyen takes several diverse genres — war film, coming-of-age romance, and supernatural horror allegory, to name a few — and combines them all into something beautiful. The film stands as a haunting reminder that we must take care not to delve too deeply into the darkness of others, lest we be blinded from confronting the darkness in ourselves. As Kamona puts it at one point, “I won’t tell you what happened … you won’t listen anymore.” Nguyen wisely takes the eroticism out of violence and places it back where it belongs, in the space between two people. In doing so, he keeps WAR WITCH from coming another gratuitous look at African suffering and allows his images to retain their power, enabling us to better identify the evil around us.
Andrew Johnson is a freelance journalist and the founder of Film Geek Radio, a network of film-and-TV-themed podcasts.