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Inside ‘War Witch's’ Unexpected Love Story – Amidst Congo Brutality

Inside 'War Witch's' Unexpected Love Story – Amidst Congo Brutality

"It's not just the characters, it’s the actors who are projecting their own selves on the screen — that makes it real and raw"

Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch,” Canada’s entry in the Oscar foreign-language sweepstakes, is the very definition of an international film: It’s in French, set in Africa and made by a Canadian director with a Vietnamese name (courtesy of his father).

Further solidifying this film’s sense of internationalism, it’s influenced by films like Brazilian Fernando Meirelles’ “City of God,” Brit Andrea Arnold’s “Fish Tank” and American John Cassavetes’ work.

Shot in Congo-Kinshasa, the film tells the wrenching story of a teenage girl forced to kill her own parents and become a child soldier — but while it doesn’t shy away from the brutality, it also finds an unexpected love story in the character’s relationship with a fellow soldier. 

"What I saw in Africa were these heavy, intense war-ridden countries where the love stories are the same as here," Nguyen told TheWrap. "You still have boyfriends and girlfriends, and the girlfriends are jealous because the boyfriend came [home] late last night. I find that odd and beautiful, and I wanted to try and convey that."

For Nguyen, the film is all in the performances, which is where his devotion to Arnold and Cassavetes comes in. "Their approach really echoed what I want to do from now on: organize everything so the true self projects itself," he said. "It's not just the characters, it’s the actors who are projecting their own selves on the screen. That makes it real and raw."

Real and raw are certainly appropriate words for the central performance in “War Witch” by Rachel Mwanza, who won best-actress awards at the Berlin and Tribeca Film Festivals. Nguyen cast her when she was living on the street in Kinshasa.

"We had the intuition that kids from the street could be pretty amazing," he said.

"And it turned out to be true. Most of them were really strong, and Rachel was the best of them. She had this nonchalance. I guess when you sleep on the side of the road, you don’t care what people think. You’re just there. And that’s an amazing tool as an actor."

The filmmakers have set up a "reinsertion" program for Mwanza, who now has a caretaker and a place to live and is going to school. She wants to act again, says Nguyen, who estimates that his young star — who at this point is still learning to read — is five to 10 years away from being able to work with a director who doesn’t use the improvisation-based method that Nguyen prefers.

"Rachel does want to act again, but she has a long way before she’ll understand the subtleties of dialogue," he said. "Uncle Kim, which is what I am now, tells her that she should also learn another trade, but she hates me for that. She’s a teenager. I mean, we bought Rachel a phone and thought she’d be happy. But she was like, 'Kim, I can’t put music on this!’ There wasn’t an MP3 reader, and she couldn’t take pictures, so she wanted a better phone."