Rebelle (War Witch, 2012) depicts two years in the life of Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a child soldier forced to fight in a civil war in sub-Saharan Africa. Featuring a breakthrough performance by former Kinshasa street kid Mwanza and a magic realist approach by director Kim Nguyen, Rebelle received prizes at several major film festivals and an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film. It also won 10 Canadian Screen Awards (formerly Genie Awards) and eight Jutra Awards, including nods at both galas for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.
Fourteen-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) tells her unborn child the story of how she was abducted by warring rebels at age 12, forced to kill her parents and then trained to fight with the rebels against the government army. After being raped and forced to mine for coltan, an ore that helps fund the rebels’ war efforts, Komona drinks a hallucinogenic tree sap and sees her dead parents, who warn her of an impending ambush. When she alone survives a violent battle, she is taken in by the warlord Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), who labels her his “War Witch.” Two years later, pregnant and rebellious, Komona summons the courage to leave the warriors’ camp with another child soldier, Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), a youth of 15 who is determined to marry her, and make a life with her and her child.
A harrowing yet poignant film that neither sentimentalizes nor sensationalizes its subject matter, Rebelle shifts seamlessly between the stark realism of the subject matter and the magic realism that Nguyen incorporates into the story, which is divided into chapters and structured in three acts, much like a Greek tragedy. Shot with the hand-held urgency of a documentary, the film is bolstered by raw, authentic performances from an almost entirely unprofessional cast.
Nguyen was inspired to make the film by the true story of Johnny and Luther Htoo, nine-year-old twin brothers who led the God’s Army guerrilla group in Burma in the late 1990s and were believed by their followers to have supernatural powers. Nguyen spent 10 years writing the script and travelled to Burundi to meet former child soldiers as part of his research. He scouted locations in Kenya and Cameroon, but chose to shoot the film in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) after seeing a soldier in Kinshasa armed with an AK-47 rifle directing traffic with a Fisher Price Luke Skywalker light sabre. “These are the idiosyncrasies that you can’t plan,” Nguyen said. “In a way, you’re looking for places that force you to re-write your story as you’re making the film, and Kinshasa was that. It nourished the film tremendously.”
The film was shot entirely in the DRC, and the crew often travelled with an armed convoy to ensure their safety. It was the first acting experience for most of the Congolese participants. After holding an open casting call that drew about 3,000 youths, 14-year-old Rachel Mwanza, who had been abandoned by her parents at a young age and was featured in a Belgian documentary about Kinshasa street kids, was cast as Komona. Nguyen shot the film chronologically and didn’t share the script with the actors; he gave them their scenes a day at a time to capture a sense of fear and uncertainty.
The film premiered at the Berlin International Film Festival, where it was met with great acclaim. Variety praised Nguyen for the film’s “maturity, panache and emotional marksmanship.” The Hollywood Reporter hailed the film as “a genre benchmark and a breakout work for writer-director Kim Nguyen.” The Boston Globe’s Ty Burr observed that, “there are dangers for a Western filmmaker setting his lens on a Third World culture — of exploiting another nation’s calamity for dramatic ends — but Nguyen succeeds by bringing us in close… and by guiding Mwanza to a performance of heartbreaking depth and simplicity.”
Rebelle was named one of Canada’s Top Ten feature films of the year by the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the best Canadian film of the year by the Vancouver Film Critics Circle and one of the top five foreign language films of 2012 by the US National Board of Review. The film received the Luc Perrault/La Presse Award for best Québec film from the Québec Association of Film Critics, and registered a 95 per cent approval rating with the film review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.
Honours and Significance
Mwanza became the first African woman to win the Berlin Film Festival’s award for best actress, an honour she also received at the Tribeca Film Festival, the Canadian Screen Awards and the Jutra Awards. Following the success of the film, she was enrolled in school and French lessons in Kinshasa, and created the Fondation Rachel Mwanza to help Kinshasa street kids learn a skilled trade.
Rebelle received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language Film — the third consecutive Québec film to do so, following Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies (2010) and Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar (2011) — and an Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best International Film. It went on to win 10 Canadian Screen Awards and eight Jutra Awards, including nods at both galas for Best Film, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor.
Canadian Screen Awards (2013)
- Best Motion Picture (Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin)
- Achievement in Direction (Kim Nguyen)
- Original Screenplay (Kim Nguyen)
- Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role (Rachel Mwanza)
- Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role (Serge Kanyinda)
- Achievement in Art Direction/Production Design (Josée Arsenault, Emmanuel Frechette)
- Achievement in Cinematography (Nicolas Bolduc)
- Achievement in Editing (Richard Comeau)
- Achievement in Overall Sound (Daniel Bisson, Bernard Gariépy Strobl, Claude La Haye)
- Achievement in Sound Editing (Jean-Francois B. Sauvé, Simon Meilleur, Martin Pinsonnault, Claire Pochon)
Jutra Awards (2013)
- Best Film (Pierre Even, Marie-Claude Poulin)
- Best Direction (Kim Nguyen)
- Best Screenplay (Kim Nguyen)
- Best Actress (Rachel Mwanza)
- Best Supporting Actor (Serge Kanyinda)
- Best Cinematography (Nicolas Bolduc)
- Best Editing (Richard Comeau)
- Best Sound (Claude La Haye, Martin Pinsonnault, Bernard Gariépy Strobol)
- Prize of the Ecumenical Jury, Special Mention, Berlin International Film Festival (2012)
- Silver Berlin Bear, Best Actress (Rachel Mwanza), Berlin International Film Festival (2012)
- Best Narrative Feature, Tribeca Film Festival (2012)
- Best Actress in a Narrative Feature (Rachel Mwanza), Tribeca Film Festival (2012)
- Audience Award, Cambridge Film Festival (2012)
- New Visions Award, Sitges Catalonian International Film Festival (2012)
- Golden Frog, Best Cinematography (Nicolas Bolduc), Plus Camerimage International Film Festival of the Art of Cinematography (2012)
- DGC Craft Award, Production Design, Feature Film (Emmanuel Fréchette), Directors Guild of Canada (2013)
- Best Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2013)
- Best Actress in a Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2013)
- Best Supporting Actor in a Canadian Film, Vancouver Film Critics Circle (2013)