TIFF 2012 Review: REBELLE (War Witch) is Bloody and Compassionate
Kumona, a young girl, fourteen and pregnant in the opening framing device, is violently kidnapped (a year earlier) from her riverside village and forced to join the rag-tag rebel army. Her first act is to shoot her parents dead. Fiery and resilient, but now quite literally haunted by her parents ghosts, she is trained to use a Kalashnikov assault rifle and sent out as front-person on dangerous jungle patrols, a sexual object for the rebel leaders or is put on labour duty harvesting some sort of ore out of the camp fire-pits (apparently this stuff is used in the circuitry mobile phones and Sony Playstations making Kumona a sweat-shop worker for the western world as well as a soldier.) The only friend she finds is a fellow soldier, an albino who makes talismans of protection out of leather and chicken feet and is called Magician. The high powered guns are blessed, quite emphatically, by the war-party's shaman. This leads to the thought that perhaps heavy calibre fire-arms and rampant superstition are a deadly cocktail - but, really, same as it ever was. It is the way human beings seem to be wired, in Europe, Asia or Africa: Religion is a damn good motivator. After a particularly violent battle, Kumona is promoted to War Witch by the rebel leader, a position not without privilege, but really a very precarious spot considering that her job is to magically ensure that no harm comes to the unit. War Witches do not seem last long in this position.
One day after drinking the 'magic milk' (which is most likely a fermented something or other and high in booze) Kumona and Magician run off together to hide with his uncle and (hopefully) get married. That Magician's uncle is named "Butcher" but is the most humane and compassionate character in Rebelle is telling. In a way, it is a small miracle that the film does not collapse under the weight of its signs and signifiers. The film is big on having its images 'mean' things, but never loses sight of Kumona's journey. When the two fourteen year olds look to get married, they search for the (according to everyone they talk to) rare 'white rooster' to consummate the union, and the catching of the beast echoes the opening shot of City of God. When I read that Kim Nyugen spent a decade writing this film, it does fell almost over-written at times. But the wonderful cinematography (care of Nicolas Bolduc who shot Dennis Villineuve's gothic Next Floor) and sophisticated performances by the two leads (Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda) are so effective that the swiss-watch image-factory precision is easily forgiven.
Rebirth, circling back to history and family are big themes on the film, but there is a loneliness to how that is presented visually. When Kumona makes an attempt to put the ghosts of her parents to rest, she is left burying their clothing and memory tokens in the absence of their remains. She gives birth, in a tour de force scene, alone and stoically at the edge of the waters, the scene pragmatic and poetic simultaneously. Not for the squeamish, Rebelle offers a strangely empowering allegory of Africa and the child-soldier narrative, that lingers in a positive light - for every horrible and unspeakable thing that human beings do to one another, there are people out there willing to offer love and help with going forward. Canadian compassion is still very much alive.