Five minutes into War Witch, we see 12-year-old Komona (Rachel Mwanza) being ordered to shoot her parents. A rebel leader has a gun at her head and he tells her if she doesn’t shoot them he will kill them, but with a machete, and then adds chillingly … “and they will suffer.”
Her parents stand together in what is left of their village, a simple sheet behind them which one assumes was a partition separating areas of their living space.
Standing dignified and steady, her father orders her “Komona, do as he says.”
Unsurprisingly it’s a moment that haunts the young girl, as her parents’ ghosts keep visiting her. She is captured, beaten and trained to become a child soldier. A rebel thrusts an AK-47 into her hand telling her “This is your new mother and father.” Komona learns to cry forcing the tears inside her eyes because crying will earn her a beating from the commander.
This fictional story is told in narrative form. Komona talking to her unborn child and telling the story of how she became a child soldier and the horrors she has faced. And she wonders if “God will give me the strength to love you.”
Often there is a dreamlike feel to the film, which is emphasized when Komona is introduced to “magic milk” from a tree sap which when drunk produces hallucinatory visions. We witness a culture of ritual and superstition. Komona herself gets christened a “witch” because she was the only one to survive a huge massacre of a village. The visiting ghosts of her dead parents (Starlette Mathata and Alex Herabo) warned her to run before the government forces started shooting.
Because of her new “war witch” status she is afforded a meeting with the Great Tiger rebel leader (Mizinga Mwinga). He gives her a present, another AK-47, which has been specially carved and dear to him. All the while it’s hard to grasp that she is only 12 years of age.
Soldiers are forced to dig for coltan, a black metallic ore, one of the so-called called “blood minerals” which warring factions fight over and highlighted in the film Blood In The Mobile. Coltan is a valuable component used for making cell phones and many other electronic devices.
The film is also careful not to name where it is placed, it is set anonymously, but for filming purposes it was made in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Amazingly, in these circumstances, Komona finds love and escapes. And here the film takes a bit of a welcome break from the bloodshed and we get a glimpse of what it’s like to live in the villages and live off the land. And Komona and an albino soldier called The Magician (Serge Kanyinda) get a chance to just be teenagers for a while. There’s always a sense that this small snapshot of life is precarious and Komona’s story doesn’t end there. We see her getting married, recaptured, being pregnant and having a baby, and all by the time she is 14.
Sometimes it’s the things that are unsaid or unseen that leave an impact. When Komona takes refuge with the Magician’s uncle, simply called the butcher, she explains he lost his family, in a way that is so terrible that it cannot be told.
The story of War Witch is fictional, but based on real accounts. The Canadian director Kim Nguyen initially took his inspiration for the film from Burmese twin brothers who formed an army of child soldiers which they reportedly started when they were only aged around nine or 10.
And the film provoked a response and debate from the teenage school children that were watching this particular showing at the Glasgow Film Theatre.
The film was being shown as part of Take One Action!, Scotland’s global action cinema project to bring campaigns and injustices to people via movies. There was also input from Jamie Livingstone, Communications and Campaigns Manager for Oxfam in Scotland.
Before the film began Livingstone held up a bunch of bananas and an iPod – telling the secondary school children, to think about these things while watching the film. The point being that there are more trade restrictions on these everyday items than there is imposed on guns.
And the point was made effectively, because there was abundance of guns (AK-47s) in the film. When the children were captured and recruited – a commander announced “we have 10 children and 20 guns”. While guns were easy to come by, basic essentials, access to health and medical care was distinctly lacking. We see a 14-year-old Komona giving birth alone and in terrifying circumstances.
When director Kim Nguyen started filming in Kinshasa, in the Democratic Republic of Congo he put out an open call for actors and was inundated. He eventually found most of his actors living on the streets, including 15-year-old Rachel Mwanza, star of the film, as Komona. Nguyen has said that he found something in the street children that was a like a haunted “constantly looking over your shoulder” look and in the silences they could convey so much.
The film also feels very spontaneous and Nguyen said he worked with no script, filmed in chronological order, told the children what part of the story they were working on, and let the film and the children’s performances unfold. It feels very natural. There is also a documentary type feel, although it is fiction. Nguyen said “If we had done the film in an objective way, like a documentary, it would have been interesting, but it wouldn’t have conveyed how a child soldier can commit all those violent acts. The ghosts illustrate the influence of drugs and superstition, which are part of the indoctrination process.”
The well-deserved awards are flowing already. Rachel Mwanza won the Silver Bear Award for Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival, as well as Best Actress at the Tribeca Film Festival, which also gave it the Best Narrative Feature award. It’s a potential Oscar winner too, after being selected as Canada’s entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the 85th Academy Awards.
At a Q&A session held after the film, controlling the easy flow of arms between countries was seen as an integral part of moving towards a solution to gang warfare. Oxfam are currently seeking a bulletproof Arms Trade Treaty.
On the Control Arms website is the definition:
“A “bulletproof” Arms Trade Treaty means an international legally-binding agreement that will stop transfers of arms and ammunition that fuel conflict, poverty and serious violations of human rights and humanitarian law.””
As Livingstone pointed out in the talk, countries should ask where the guns are going and what they are being used for before any sale is authorized. There simply has to be tighter and stricter controls.
The statistics were also talked about. One person dies every minute from armed violence and each year over 12 billion bullets are produced – enough to kill everyone in the world twice over. Bullets themselves are also an issue, as these are also uncontrolled. Essentially guns are rendered useless without them and Oxfam and Control Arms would like to see bullets included as part of a robust treaty.
The General Assembly opened last week, where Member States of the United Nations convene until November 6. A report from the Control Arms website states that the Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) is still high on the agenda, despite talks breaking down last July when a robust and binding ATT failed to reach a consensus. Now the committee will decide how and when the next round of treaty negotiations will take place. It is expected that a mandate will be put forward for March 2013.
As can be seen from Komona’s story, women and girls are particularly vulnerable to violence and rape in conflict situations. And there is a push to have women’s rights taken into account in the treaty but even more than this – to have women be part of the peace-building process and help effect solutions. Many women experience and live with the worst effects of war, and it seems like commonsense to include their contributions and views to any peace-building movement.
Anna Macdonald, Head of Arms Control, Oxfam, speaking at the United Nations Headquarters on Women, Disarmament, Non-Proliferation and Arms Control on September 25, highlighted this.
She called for the participation of women’s organizations in peace-building and arms controls and said, it was important “Not to find policy solutions for women, but to do far, far more to open the space to allow policy solutions by women. To enable women to assert their rights in peace-building at every stage and more than ever before.”
Oxfam has heard accounts from women all over the world living with conflict and violence. She said “The political situations vary, but the way in which armed violence tears apart their lives, and with it the fabric of society is the same. Without the participation of women in peace efforts and disarmament, those efforts are unlikely to be successful. The specific needs of women and girls must be taken into account. Their specific contribution must be valued if arms control and peace-building are to be achieved.”
She also referred to Yemen and to a particular account from a woman there:
“We wanted jobs, security, an end to corruption and an improvement in services. Instead, we can’t afford food, there’s no electricity and there are guns everywhere.”
Anna Macdonald finished by saying “In conclusion, much more needs to be done at every level, to incorporate the needs, rights and voices of women in disarmament, arms control and peace processes, by not only bringing them to the table, but ensuring they are engaged at the earliest stage. And it must be done by us all, governments, the UN, and civil society.”
While at the GFT, Livingstone concluded that now is the time for everyone to get involved. He urged the school children to log on to their social media networks, become involved, spread the word and sign the petition.
For more information see:
Petition: Oxfam/Control Arms website
Oxfam/Control Arms: Control Arms Website
Support Control Arms on Facebook: Control Arms Facebook Page
War Witch website: War Witch film
Take One Action: Take One Action! Website
- Twelve billion bullets are produced each year – nearly two bullets for every person in the world.
- One million guns are reported to stolen every year from around the world.
- One in ten people around the world possesses small arms. 747000 people are killed by armed violence every year.
- One person dies every minute from armed violence.