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Brutality countered by tenderness in ‘War Witch’

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‘WAR WITCH’ ★★★★

Komona Rachel Mwanza

Magician Serge Kanyinda

Rebel Alain Bastien

The Great Tiger Mizinga Mwinga

Butcher Ralph Prosper

Tribeca Film presents a film written and directed by Kim Nguyen. In French and Lingala, with English subtitles. Running time: 90 minutes. No MPAA rating (children suffer and inflict gun violence). Opening Friday at the Music Box.

Updated: April 23, 2013 1:27PM

The 14-year-old Komona tells her unborn child: “You will come out of my belly one day. I don’t know if God will give me strength to love you.” Canadian-Vietnamese filmmaker Kim Nguyen’s “War Witch” depicts the three-year odyssey of a child soldier as she comes to see ghosts and learns to shoot an AK-47.

Nominated for this year’s best foreign film Oscar, “War Witch” also won 10 Canadian Screen Awards. Cast from the streets of Kinshasa, the capital of Democratic Republic of Congo, first-timer Rachel Mwanza won best actress honors at the Berlin Film Festival and the Tribeca Film Festival. As Komona, Mwanza is a compelling presence on screen. Like the female narrators in last year’s “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and the new “Spring Breakers,” Komona sounds like a seer.

“War Witch” starts two years earlier with a raid on a village. Rebels force her to shoot her mother and father, then take her away. She is taught: “Respect your guns. They’re your new mother and father.” Later, her parents appear to her as white-powdered ghosts. Because she can see government troops hidden in the jungle, the rebel leader Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) declares Komona a witch. Her magical sight is tactical.

The rebels terrorize local folks. “I will not tell you what happened to this family because you will not listen to me,” Komona says of an unspeakable crime that occurs offscreen. Her kidnappers assault her soul and her senses. The Great Tiger supplies her with a white tree sap that makes her hallucinate. “In my head, there are things that even the ‘magic milk’ can’t erase,” she narrates. “I had to learn to make the tears go inside my eyes so they didn’t see I was crying.”

Writer-director Nguyen got the idea for “War Witch” from the 9-year-old twins Johnny and Luther Htoo, who led God’s Army in Burma. Although shot in sequence in the Congo, this film is not about any one conflict. “The Child Soldier Phenomenon has become a post-Cold War epidemic that has proliferated to every continent, with the exception of Antarctica and Australia,” reported the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory in 2002.

When Komona flees, her companion is a 15 year-old albino rebel named Magician (Serge Kanyinda). Their kind of love story, though, is not among the violent films that the Great Tiger plays for his killers. Atrocity and beauty somehow co-exist in “War Witch.”

Bill Stamets is a Chicago free-lance writer and reviewer.

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