Outside the sitcom or fantasy contexts of an “Are We There Yet?” sequel or a “Karate Kid” remake, depictions of black children on movie screens in America are so rare that when one is introduced to Komona (Rachel Mwanza), the title character in “War Witch,” one inevitably thinks of the last young black heroine found inside a similarly patchwork structure of scavenged material in the relatively untamed landscape of a shrinking Eden: Hushpuppy, played by Quvenzhané Wallis in last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild.”
Both young women become separated from family and home; both experience surreal, even supernatural visions that seem to help them cope with their perilous surroundings. But if Hushpuppy, in swampy Southern Louisiana, represents a romanticized notion of presexual wild-child independence threatened by well-intentioned “sivilization” (to quote Huck Finn), the more mature Komona, in sub-Saharan Africa, is caught in a very real cycle of chaos and murder. Her oppressors carry AK-47s, not inoculation needles; they want her in rebel uniform, not in school. If Hushpuppy’s exploded nimbus of hair signifies freedom, Komona’s tight, spiky, practical braids suggest command and control.
Shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo and set in an unspecified country, “War Witch,” written and directed by Canada-based Kim Nguyen, was a nominee this year for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. (It lost to France’s “Amour.”) Despite this recognition and the film’s almost universal acclaim (Mwanza, a resident of Congo, won the Best Actress award at the Berlin International Film Festival), “War Witch” did not receive a regular theatrical booking here; instead, it makes its local public screening debut at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. Admission is $8, or $6 for museum members.
In French and the Bantu language of Lingala, with English subtitles, “War Witch” is a character portrait of Komona, presented as an example of one of the hundreds of thousands of children forcibly recruited by rebel militias during the past three decades alone in an Africa convulsing with tribal conflicts and civil wars. As a 2007 New York Times report on child soldiers in Mozambique stated: “The Mozambicans learned that children were the perfect weapon: easily manipulated, intensely loyal, fearless and, most important, in endless supply.”
Stories about these children have been told many times before: in the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us” (about the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan), which played at the Malco Ridgeway Four in 2007, and in Uzodinma Iweala’s 2005 novel “Beasts of No Nation,” to cite just two examples. That novel, about a kidnapped boy forced to become a rebel soldier, seems to have been an influence on “War Witch.”
The movie is harrowing from the start, as Komona’s village is invaded by the anti-government forces of the handsome rebel leader, Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). Komona, 12, is handed an assault rifle and given a choice: Shoot her parents, or watch them be hacked to death by machete.
In the jungle, Komona and the other children are inculcated into what might be described as the rebel cult. She is befriended by Magician (Serge Kanyinda), a somewhat older albino boy whose alleged sorcerous skills seem to be a benefit of his lack of pigmentation. Even paler are the ghosts Komona sees among the trees who warn her of impending danger, making her invaluable to the rebels as a prophesying “witch.”
Komona is our guide through the movie, so we learn little of the rebel ideology, which seems to be of no interest to her (or above her “need to know” level), and nothing of the outside world’s response to this conflict. Komona also narrates; although she is less precious than Hushpuppy, she is occasionally similarly poetic, as when she says: “I had to learn to make the tears go inside my eyes.” For Komona, the focus is survival — the practical here and now, whether she is participating in a gunbattle or enjoying short-lived freedom as a runaway. Wherever she is, the locations — the forests, the villages, the small urban centers, the abandoned bus where stolen children cheer a Jean-Claude Van Damme movie on a portable television, the waterway where a girl paddling a dugout canoe wears a knockoff Abercrombie T-shirt — are fresh and exciting.
“War Witch” is perhaps not quite as powerful as it ought to be, in part because its events — in the interest, perhaps, of realism — are episodic and almost random; scene for scene, it’s sometimes more pictorial than dramatic. Even so, the film makes an impression, and you’re likely to be thinking about its images, its insights into a very foreign (for most of us) location and the tragic situation of Komona and others like her for days to come.
2 p.m. Sunday, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (brooksmuseum.org).
Not rated; contains violence and some sexual content.
3 ½ stars