Set in an unnamed African country ravaged by civil war, War Witch tells the story of one girl’s hellish nightmare. Kidnapped by rebels at the start of the film, Komona (Rachel Mwanza) must adapt in order to withstand her brutal surroundings. It seems like every film about Africa is an unhappy toil through third-world tragedies and War Wtich is no exception. The main creative variation in this movie is Komona’s haunting visions of the dead. They appear to her as real as everyone else only painted white. Sometimes they warn her of danger, but later they’re simply alarming reminders of the past. Because of Komona’s gift, the superstitious rebels declare her their witch. From there, the film presents Komona with one hardship after another, with only the faintest of respite. While the film is engaging on a visceral, emotional level, I don’t think it offers much more than that.
Personally, the film didn’t shock me. I’ve come to expect nothing but atrocities from African cinema (though the film was made by Kim Nguyen, a French-Canadian). War Witch offers up two identical Sophie’s Choice scenes, a DIY delivery, and a homemade vagina flytrap. These dramatic extremes work but how could they not? I’m surprised they didn’t kick a dog while they were at it. The film is emotionally loaded, but I never felt connected to Komona. Untrained actress Rachel Mwanza is good in the role. She narrates and most the film maintains her strict POV, but a vacuum remains. Whenever it seems like some profound understanding about Komona is about to be reached, the movie pulls away and moves on to the next sad thing.
Thankfully the film is better than something like Oscar-winner Tsotsi. Where Tsotsi felt like complete fantasy, like tragic dress up, War Witch is much more believable. It doesn’t come across like carpetbagger filmmaking. It wisely avoids explaining the politics of the country. The focus stays narrow and direct. We’re here for Komona’s journey and no other context is needed. Even so, the filmmakers don’t really have anything to say other than Africa can be pretty crappy. The one cinematic flourish, the visions, offers a slight theme of moving past the past, but it’s not fully explored. It’s an exercise in endless misery that doesn’t go deep enough while settling for easily elicited sentiment. It’s better than most films of its kind, but surely there’s something superior to be done with the extraordinary circumstances.