War Witch – Kim Nguyen and the unflinching Western eye. (Film Review)
That War Witch is set in a ‘unspecified African Nation’ speaks directly to the problems of homogenization in the film, the obvious planned placement in front of white liberal audiences and Kim Nguyen’s unspoken motivation to bring the horrors of Africa to the white and comfortable. Africa is a continent and the countries it houses as divergent as the Asian, American or European regions. The lack of specificity saddles War Witch with an unfortunately westernized view that almost demands ‘Africa’ continue to be seen in a certain light that supports the white cultural and political perspectives Nguyen claims to seek to oppose. Once this uniformity has been established, it doesn’t matter that Kim Nguyen spent ten years in ‘Africa’ to capture the true spirit of children, locals and culture, because it was all whitewash to add authenticity to an existing perspective, something particularly necessary no doubt since the original true life story occurred in Burma. This story was never Kim Nguyen’s to tell and rather than give a voice to the people it purports to represent, it silences them with its example of yet another safe white liberal film maker telling us who ‘Africa’ really is.
I’m not suggesting non-Africans are not allowed to make films in Africa, but I am saying there are certain things that a well fed white Canadian male can never understand about the life of a twelve-year-old Congolese (seeing as the film was set in the Congo lets run with that) female recruited into an army after being forced to shoot her parents, its arrogant of him to assume he does, and the ambiguity of setting is a deliberate call for a licence for him to do so. A film about the making of this film would show more authenticity and perhaps reveal the unspoken and yet painfully obvious motivations of Nguyen and thereby genuinely teach us something about ourselves and the image we impose on ‘Africa’ rather than yet another exploitative film that seeks to relieve us of white guilt by exposing us to it for an hour and a half. War Witch reminded me time and again of Bandit Queen, a film that ‘told the truth’ claimed Shekhar Kapur at the time, because it was based on Phoolan Devi’s unauthorised biography that the living Phoolan Devi (whom Kapur never consulted, spoke with or even met) stated often conflicted with her own version of events, despite her willingness to help with sections of the project. Because of the nature of film and its (potential) distribution, Kapur’s version has become more ‘accurate’ than Devi’s own, just as Nguyen has given us a ‘truth’ that evokes more accuracy than any fact could hope to provide; and true to the soaking up of these kinds of films, War Witch was nominated for an academy award for best foreign film in 2013, cementing its vision of ‘Africa’ as a place that hates its children so much there is nothing we can do.
Consistent with Nguyen’s whiter-than-white perspective is an accomplished cinematography by Nicolas Bolduc coupled with Nguyen’s directional favourite trick ellipsis, that is intended to inspire the audience to a recognition of whimsy or the innate beauty of life, a-la-TerrenceMalick, that is used to great effect, particularly in blotting out the images of terrible violence, but again imposes a strangely westernized interpretation over the non-war images. Nguyen avoids sentimentality in dialogue but imposes it in scenes like the hunt for the white rooster with the blurred backgrounds of villages subverted to the very sweet romantic plot acting as a sort of patchwork background reminder that life is really beautiful, when you’re allowed to live it. The positing of idyllic village life against the rebel army is as overt as the use of children who never grow up in its attempt to manipulate an audience dying to be manipulated. Like all films of this nature, the victims are innocents (children) and only commit crimes under extreme force, such as Komona’s forced murder of her parents (not a spoiler, this happens in the first five minutes of the film) and the villains are wholly bad, only a road-to-damascus conversion allowing for the transition from ‘black’ to ‘white’. This occurs in the form of Magicien, a rebel soldier who falls in love (!) with Komona and is thereby saved from himself. Nguyen ‘uglifies’ guerilla war fare for the sake of the audience he perpetually has in mind, positing this against an equally as sanitized free village life, the emblem of an ‘Africa’ that would ‘thrive if we just left them alone you know’.
There are some saving graces from Nguyen’s obvious agenda that make War Witch a watchable film and certainly one that the informed viewer can enjoy. Nguyen has employed non-actors for the cast and everyone is very good, with the two leads, Rachel Mwanza as Komona and Serge Kanyinda as Magicien particularly wonderful. Mwanza has a deeply expressive face, she was a fine choice by Nguyen and she is very well-directed and inevitably picked up many best actor awards. Kanyinda has albinism and this speaks to one of the more interesting aspects of the film, being the portrayal of white not as a ‘white man’ but genuinely as a symbol of hope and peace. The search for the white rooster (a symbol of courageous love) takes the young couple to a village of albinos where marriage becomes possible. It’s a truly beautiful scene and one of the few moments War Witch achieves the authenticity that Nguyen genuinely craves, and creates an air distinct from the westernized agenda that is refreshing and hopeful. These little moments rescue War Witch from is formula and give little rays of hope for a westernized understanding of ‘Africa’.