There's one Oscar group that's criminally overlooked every year. While all the attention is focused on Best Picture, Best Director and the acting categories, the category that has the potential to truly affect a film's fortunes more than any other is Best Foreign Language Film.
Each country gets just one entry, and only five are even nominated. Think about it: Each country selects what it thinks is its best movie, its own "best picture," which then goes up against dozens of other selections. The Academy has trouble fielding 10 solid Best Picture nominees, but you can bet that unless there's some terrible oversight, every nominee in Foreign Language Film is a winner.
That said, there can be only one winner, and this year it was Michael Haneke's Amour (which was up for Best Picture, too). But just being nominated often guarantees a film a limited theatrical run, and in virtually every case, that means there's a solid film that you'd otherwise never have seen in a theater near you.
One such film is War Witch, made by Kim Nguyen, a Montreal resident born to a French Canadian mother and a Vietnamese father. However, the movie—opening Friday, March 29, at Reading Cinemas Gaslamp—was shot in Kinshasa, the capitol of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a country that's produced, to my knowledge, just one other feature film in recent years (Viva Riva). It's also produced no shortage of child soldiers for its long-term civil war; that's what War Witch is about, and it's wrenching to watch.
The film kicks in with a pregnant Komona (Rachel Mwanza, though the voiceovers are performed by Diane Uwamahoro) explaining to her unborn child the worries and trepidations she has about giving birth, especially considering the hardships she's experienced throughout her life. I should say her young life, since Komona is just 14. It was two years earlier that she was kidnapped from her small village and told that if she doesn't murder her own parents with an automatic weapon, they'll be hacked to death with a machete. This is all in the first few minutes of the film, and things continue to be grim from there.
Komona is forced to go to war as a rebel, serving the Grand Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), a sleepy-looking commandant with a habit of killing his own soldiers. He quickly determines that she's a witch who he can use to further his cause. The thing is, he's not entirely wrong. Komona's able to see friends and foes who have died in battle. That's right: She sees dead people, and, sadly, she ends up seeing a lot of them and being responsible for some of their deaths. In her heart, though, Komona is no soldier, and soon she and another teen, the albino Magician (Serge Kanyinda) have deserted, trying to return to a normal life. But violence has permeated every facet of life in the Congo, and it isn't long before she's dragged back into the conflict.
There is a message of hope in War Witch, but it comes at a terrible cost. It's challenging for us viewers to watch as a child is destroyed by grown men. This is not a film about politics, however. There's no great takeaway, except the knowledge that this abhorrent practice is decimating generations of children. Nguyen's success is to make that point by presenting just one child, and in selecting Mwanza as his lead, he's found a non-professional actor who's able to capture the complexity of innocence lost while still occasionally managing to retain a sense of youth. It's the sort of performance only found in child actors who haven't grown up enough to become jaded. Unfortunately, though, the subject matter of War Witch should be jading enough for all of us.