The end of naivete and a loss of innocence is an inevitable part of growing up. As Oscar-nominated War Witch shows, the events that bring about such change in sub-Saharan Africa can be unimaginable to those of us hailing from more sheltered parts of the world, but the resolve to shoulder the greater burdens of adulthood are not so different.
Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is the vessel through whom this lesson is imparted. Just 12 years old when the film begins, horror after horror is visited upon her from when she is drafted against her will in to a rebel army in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Her initiation to the ranks: killing her own parents when offered the choice to either shoot them herself or watch them get hacked to death with a machete.
Her primary coping mechanism for that sort of unspeakable brutality is to take "magic milk," a hallucinogenic substance found in the sap of trees near the army's camp that allows her to see ghosts, including those of her dead parents.
Whether a real or imagined effect, the "magic milk" also seems to make her clairvoyant -- the ghosts warning her of an ambush that earns her the nickname "War Witch" and turns her in to a totem of sorts for rebel leader Great Tiger (Mzinga Mwinga). It's hard not to think of Beasts of the Southern Wild during this particular stretch because of the fantasy and mysticism, especially when Komona and a fellow child soldier, an albino who goes by the name The Magician (Serge Kanyinda), desert from the rebels. But the blossoming romance between the pair on must eventually give way to harder lessons than Hushpuppy ever had to learn.
Those hard lessons had me thinking of another of my favorite films from last year -- The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Though the misery visited upon Charlie isn't as sustained or as shocking as what Komona goes through, it is no less disruptive of his reality; it too forces him to grow up far more quickly than he should. Both protagonists stand as tributes to the ability of ordinary people to overcome extraordinary awfulness.
While War Witch has a message that is on par with other great films, it does not have the other pieces that would serve to elevate it. There's a disjointedness to the story, and I found the reliance on Komona's voiceover to string the acts together to be a bit of a crutch. It's a visual delight -- especially since it was filmed entirely in the Congo, a country that few in the West will have seen for this sort of prolonged period -- but also a little incomplete.