Kim Nguyen's seductively simple film Rebelle tells the story of a 12-year-old girl named Komona who is kidnapped by rebels in an African country and forced to become a child soldier. She kills people and she cries about it, but then she discovers that she has magical powers: she can see ghosts in the jungle, and she knows when the government forces lie in wait. That makes her valuable as the "war witch" to the rebel leader, named Great Tiger.
Rebelle -- which was nominated for an Academy Award Thursday in the best foreign-language category -- covers two years in Komona's life, an odyssey that veers into slaughter, witchcraft, love and even compassion. It opens with a scene of Komona walking through the calm ramshackle of a quiet African village, speaking to the unborn child in her belly. "I have to tell you how you became a soldier with the rebels," she says.
The movie is that story. It is harrowing material -- Komona says she hopes God will give her the strength to love the baby -- but Nguyen, a Montreal filmmaker, softens it with a sense of humanity, and with strikingly authentic performances. Rachel Mwanza, a child he found in the streets of Kinshasa, stars as Komona, and it is her journey from girlhood to motherhood that carries us through Rebelle.
Mwanza won acting awards at the Berlin and Tribeca film festivals, and she is such a naturalistic performer that at times the film seems like a documentary.
It's a feeling that is underlined by the hand-held urgency of the cinematography: in an early scene, rebels in dugout boats power onto the shoreline of an isolated African village, shoot the residents, and gather up children to take back with them.
Komona is given an AK-47 and told to kill her parents. "If you don't kill them, I'll kill them with a machete," says a fearsome general, and the loss and devastation in Komona's face is heartbreaking: a little girl with pigtails knotted across her head, holding a large gun and weeping.
Along with other children, she is hustled through the jungles, forced to carry heavy loads and beaten when she falls. In voice-over -- a device the film uses judiciously -- she tells how she learned to keep her tears inside. Her position changes when she drinks "white milk" from the trees and finds she can see visions. "Even when I sleep I see ghosts inside my head," she says, but it's a power that makes her more valuable to the rebel leaders.
There's an air of frightening jungle spirituality to Rebelle -- in one scene, a medicine man howls out a prayer and throws stones on the ground to determine which direction the rebel force should go -- but Komona's magic powers are quieter.
Rebelle (the English title is War Witch) was shot in Congo but set in an unnamed African country. Nevertheless, Komona tells us that the soldiers had to guard a black rock called Coltan, an ore used in electronic devices whose mining finances conflicts in Congo.
That is the only outwardly political aspect of the film, which takes on a more humane aspect when Komona attracts the attention of Magician (Serge Kanyinda), a fellow child soldier who feeds and protects her.
In the middle of Rebelle, there blooms a kind of love story that introduces a more rollicking side of African culture: Komona won't marry Magician unless he finds her a rare white rooster, and his search inspires much laughter and rib-nudging from other men who have been sent on a similar wild rooster chase by reluctant fiancées.
Komona still has another odyssey to take before she finds the relative peace of pregnancy. At one stage, she goes to the house of Magician's uncle, a man named The Butcher. He has seen terrible things, and Komona tells us that she can't describe what happened to The Butcher's family because we would shut up our ears and stop listening. It's a measured moment that is both sad and almost tender. Like much of Rebelle, it allows us to find the humanity in an unhappy land.
-- Postmedia News Service
Excerpts of select reviews of Rebelle:
"Rebelle is full of such careful detail, and is carried so beautifully by Mwanza's performance, that questions of authenticity slide away."
-- Guy Dixon, Globe and Mail
"The ghosts of murdered villagers that haunt a young girl brutally forced into slavery as a child soldier in Rebelle mirror the film's dramatic effect on an audience."
-- Linda Barnard, Toronto Star
"Nguyen's decision to look away from carnage and avoid melodrama is admirable, making room for sensitive and imaginative filmmaking, but it softens the blow the subject would otherwise deliver."
-- Radheyan Simonpillai, Now magazine