The opening moments of “War Witch” plunge us straight into the inferno. A band of rebel soldiers assaults a remote village in central Africa, searching for child conscripts for their army. They grab a 12-year-old named Komona (Rachel Mwanza), stick a rifle in her hands, and order her to kill her parents. If she refuses, they’ll do the job with machetes. The girl’s father gazes at her and silently gives his permission.
Where can a movie go that begins with a trauma this all-consuming and a loss this complete? “War Witch” deals with a reality so horrific that the film’s touches of magical realism are welcome, even necessary — the only way to retain one’s bearings and sanity in a world without signposts. Originally titled “Rebelle” (director Kim Nguyen is based in Montreal and the film was Canada’s foreign-language Oscar nominee this year), the movie is grim yet clear-eyed, and it seeks out glimmers of hope in individual resilience and in the connections that bind us together.
Komona’s voice-over narration and Nicolas Bolduc’s fluid, color-saturated cinematography keep us held to the girl’s point of view as she crosses an unimaginable terrain of experience. “War Witch” was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo but it could take place anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa; the story’s universality verges on the poetic without tipping over the edge. Forced to live in the jungle with the ragtag troops of rebel leader Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), Komona and the other village children are taught to shoot assault rifles and fed a hallucinogenic tree sap — “magic milk” — that further scrambles their allegiances.
For her, the hallucinations stick. The pale ghosts of the dead visit Komona and warn her of danger, and whether they’re real or not, the girl is adopted by Great Tiger as his army’s “war witch” and given special treatment. The movie shows a culture ruinously stranded between ancient tribalism and modernity — between magic charms and AK-47s — and shots of Komona traversing this war-wracked landscape in a tattered Abercrombie T-shirt echo out to a wider world too self-absorbed to pay attention.
In its second act, though, “War Witch” finds a respite. Komona befriends a slightly older soldier, an albino called the Magician (Serge Kanyinda), and the two run away for an odyssey as tender as it is brief. There are even moments of comedy, with Komona sending the boy out to find a white rooster (the equivalent of a left-handed monkey wrench, apparently) to prove his worth as a potential husband. In the Magician’s home village, we see both what war has taken away — his uncle, the local butcher (Ralph Prosper), keeps a bucket nearby to vomit in, since chopping up meat reminds him of what happened to his family — and the ordinary human rituals and kindnesses that somehow live on.
Then it’s back into the maelstrom for a final round of horrors before “War Witch” sends us out on a gracious, hard-won note of optimism. 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, by filling the soundtrack with local sounds and burbling African pop songs, and by guiding Mwanza to a performance of heartbreaking depth and simplicity. “War Witch” gives us a continent’s tragedy in a young girl’s face.Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.