Several months after winning the best actress award in Berlin for it’s leading actor and hot on the heels of its announcement as Canada’s official entry for contention at this year’s Oscar race, Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (War Witch) has been building considerable momentum in recent weeks and rightfully so. Featuring a positively revelatory and raw performance from young Rachel Mwanza, this chilling look into the grim world of child soldiers starts off quickly and never wavers in its focus despite combining warfare with notes of mysticism.
After being kidnapped and forced to kill her parents literally minutes into the film, 12 year old Komona (Mwanza) begrudgingly becomes indoctrinated into a force of anti-government rebels led by the tyrannical Great Tiger. Komona becomes a prized possession to the militia general because of her seemingly psychic abilities to foresee when danger or an attack is coming. She finds a kindred spirit in a young man similarly prized for his magical abilities, and together they begin a doomed romance that will force both of them to escape and try to hide from their past.
While the opening starts a bit too quickly and is somewhat evocative of Oliver Stone’s work in Platoon, Nguyen’s three act structure lays out the tragedy of Komona’s life quite succinctly into a three act structure playing out over three years. The first act establishes her as a confused child trying to find her way in the world, but it’s really all just set up for what’s to follow. The second and most satisfying act watches her romance with the magician blossoming into something potentially life changing before their pasts catch up with them once again. The final part involves Komona hitting bottom and planning her final escape by any means necessary, even if it’s brutally detrimental to her own health.
Nguyen never shies away from being shocking or appropriately distant from her subjects. Once she sets the stage for the rest of the film and the characters that inhabit this world, Nguyen goes about crafting a nuanced portrait of a girl surrounded by death and tragedy who’s haunted by the memory of her dead parents. Nguyen also has a sharp eye for creating poetic visuals that don’t obviously scream with symbolism, and his use of sound to convey despair and unease is some of the best in recent Canadian cinema.
But the real reason this film works so well has to be Mwanza. As a girl ripped from her relatively comfortable village at an impressionable age, she has to convey guilt and sadness on a grand scale while simultaneously repressing it to those around her to preserve her own well being. She’s seen as a witch, but she’s really cursed, and none of it’s her fault for even a second. Her performance elevates Rebelle above simply being a searing and unflinching portrait of child soldiers to something emotionally affecting and deeply relatable.