African Street Child Stars In 'War Witch'

War Witch, the story of a child soldier in Africa, was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and it won tons of film festival prizes all over the world. The real-life story of actress Rachel Mwanza is as dramatic as the one she portrays.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

All right. Let's talk about the film "War Witch." It's the story of a child soldier in Africa. It was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Oscar and it won many film festival prizes all over the world. And it's now opening in the U.S. Our movie critic Kenneth Turan has a review.

KENNETH TURAN, BYLINE: The first time we see Komona, she is 12 years old and balancing on a makeshift teeter-totter. It's an image that emphasizes how much of a child she is and how precarious her place in the world is. So it's disconcerting to hear her say in voiceover...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WAR WITCH")

RACHEL MWANZA: (as Komona) (speaking French)

TURAN: I have to tell you how I became a soldier for the rebels. Komona's nightmare begins when a ragtag group of soldiers take her prisoner in an attack on her village and insists that she shoot her parents. In the bush with the rebels she is indoctrinated to treat her AK-47 as her new mother and father.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WAR WITCH")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken) Your papa, mama.

TURAN: The rebels also give her magic milk, a natural psychedelic that allows her to see dead people. That causes the fighters to think of her as a sorceress. The only human connection Komona forms is with a fellow soldier named Magician. The couple's childish efforts to escape from the rebels and begin a normal life are heartbreaking.

The real-life story of actress Rachel Mwanza is as dramatic as the one she portrays. A street child discovered in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, she is only now learning how to read. She was told the script a few pages at a time to insure the immediacy of her response.

"War Witch" could have been overwrought, but Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen has taken great care to be dispassionate. And he's also brought an unexpected degree of artistry to the storytelling. He wisely chose to structure the film as a dialogue between Komona's slightly older self, pregnant at fourteen, and her unborn child. Though "War Watch" sounds as familiar as today's newspaper headlines, this film has found a way to make it stand out from the crowd.

INSKEEP: Kenneth Turan reviews movies for MORNING EDITION and the Los Angeles Times.

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