A quiet life in a sub-Saharan Africa lakeside shantytown is disrupted when rebel soldiers invade. They round up the young who try to flee. Twelve-year-old Komona's (Rachel Mwanza) legs cannot carry her fast enough. She's caught. A vile soldier, putting a rifle in her hands, commands her to shoot her parents. "If you don't kill them, I will with my machete," he bellows. And so it begins, a nightmare. Abduction. Extraction to a jungle. Boot camp. Indoctrination into brutal gorilla warfare. Mastering the intricacies of AK-47s. Participating in murder missions.
Director/writer Kim Nguyen, in his third feature film, concocts a thrilling, dramatic examination of the exploitation of children in countries where adults capture, coerce and employ young people who rampage and kill. He was inspired the day he read a news report on 10-year-old twins named Johnny and Luther Htoo, chain-smoking child soldiers who had become sacrosanct images for rebels. Nguyen filmed his contemporary allegory in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but there are parallel tales in other African countries and parts of the world. A decision to film in sequence and not let the cast read the completed script made them live in the moment. That candor gives the film a cinema verite sensibility that flourishes. Acts of extreme violence and degradation, mixed with romance, kindness and mysticism prove a volatile mix.
As Komona and the rebels go on killing sprees, she learns to suppress her fears and sadness, "I had to make the tears go inside my eyes." The soldiers drink a milky sap from a plant, a hallucinogen. Komona sees ghosts; chalk white spirits with blank eyes who guide her. The ghosts save her from an attack. The supreme rebel leader, the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), notices her clairvoyant skills. He thinks she's a sorceress, a rebel War Witch. The warfare and carnage rot her soul. Visions of her parents' restless spirits begging her to come home and bury them haunt her. The only kindness she experiences comes from a fellow soldier, Magician (Serge Kanyinda), an albino. Can his fists protect her? Will his love save her?
The heart of this very alarming study on war is the entrancing performance of Rachel Mwanza, a young girl from the streets of Kinshasa, who with a stare, a tear, a grimace emotes more than an ensemble of Shakespearean actors. She's poised. Mature. Focused. Transparent. You root for her to survive ungodly conditions that would destroy most adults. The perfect balance to this hardened, emotionally threadbare female lead is the very romantic Serge Kanyinda; he plays her savior. Their romance is more daring and destined than Romeo and Juliet's, and a welcomed respite from the demonic Rebel Lieutenant (Alain Bastien), who maims and rapes without flinching. He's the surrogate for all the evil men who create child soldier armies.
Nguyen's direction and script rarely falter. It's a near-perfect blend of harsh reality and mysticism. You can't guess where the gruesome plot line will take you. You hope for relief from the violence and exploitation, but there are no guarantees. That's the mark of smart leadership and imaginative writing. When the storyline has an occasional lull, it gives you a chance to take a deep breath, gather your courage, and continue. Also Mwanza could not have created her thoroughly convincing performance without strong guidance from an astute and nurturing mentor. She finds that in Nguyen.
Nicolas Bolduc's cinematography captures the action, the winsome moments and the surreal white figments of human spirits with equal verve. Richard Comeau edits the footage down to the minimum. There are no wasted scenes, no fat, just lean drama. African folk music fills the air establishing a tone that evokes the motherland.
There is harshness. Conflict. Atrocities. A life is ruined. However, there are acts of compassion, moments that provide the life balance of good versus evil. The director shows great restraint and never kills the war witch's instincts. Her spirit will carry you through this heart-tugging film. It will hang over you as you find out if her will to live is enough to survive.
This 2012 Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film fully deserves the highest accolades. It puts a human face on child exploitation, a scourge of mankind. It's brilliant.
Visit Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwighBrownInk.com.