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War Witch DVD Review

War Witch (2013) U.S. movie poster War Witch (Rebelle)

US Theatrical Release: March 1, 2013 (Canada: April 16, 2012) / Running Time: 90 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Writer/Director: Kim Nguyen

Cast: Rachel Mwanza (Komona), Alain Bastien (Commander Rebelle), Serge Kanyinda (Magician), Ralph Prosper (The Butcher), Mizinga Mwinga (Great Tiger), Diane Uwamahoro (Narrator), Jean Kabuya (School Camp Coach), Jupiter Bokondji (Great Tiger's Wizard), Starlette Mathata(Komona's Mother), Alex Herabo (Komona's Father), Dole Malalou (Coltan Dealer), Karim Bamaraki (Man on the Motorcycle), Sephora Françoise (Butcher's Mother), Jonathan Kombe (Kind Policeman), Marie Dilou (Exorcist), Gauna Gau (Muscular Albino)

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If the title War Witch sounds familiar to you, you may have filled out an Oscar ballot a little more than eight months ago. War Witch was one of the five nominees for Foreign Language Film, competing against Kon-Tiki, No, A Royal Affair,
and the presumably runaway winner Amour. War Witch was the official submission of Canada and became that predominantly English-speaking country's third consecutive entry to earn a nomination. Its inclusion in the Academy's most exotic category is justified by the facts that it was filmed in the Democratic Republic of Congo in a mix of French and the local language Lingala.

War Witch tells the story of Komona (Rachel Mwanza), an African girl who narrates to her unborn child. At age 12, Komona is kidnapped by rebels working for a figure called Great Tiger. She is forced to kill her parents to spare them suffering and indoctrinated with fellow child warriors into a deadly sect. Each youth gets an AK-47 assault rifle, which they are told is their new mother and father out here. The ghosts of Komona's actual parents are among the numerous ones eerily haunting her, some brought on by "magic milk", a natural hallucinogen.

African child rebels Komona (Rachel Mwanza) and Magician (Serge Kanyinda) form a friendship in the French-Canadian drama "War Witch."

For being able to spot government soldiers hiding out in the forest, Komona is given the title of "witch", an important role that is of value to the Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga). Komona's sympathetic fellow rebel, a slightly older albino boy called Magician (Serge Kanyinda), takes a liking to her and proposes. Recalling her father's advice, Komona sends Magician out on a wild goose chase in search of an elusive white rooster. When the blonde boy finally tracks one down, Komona agrees to be his wife.

The two have simply wandered away from their service to Great Tiger and their desertion has consequences in the form of an armed mob that shows up at the house of Magician's uncle, "The Butcher" (Ralph Prosper), where the young newlyweds have been staying. Separated, Komona ends up serving (mostly sexually) another commander (Alain Bastien), who impregnates her.

It's probably impossible to make a film set in a war-torn third world country without feeling like awards bait. Never an institution to shy from a social conscience, the Academy gladly took that bait and made this an Oscar nominee. Beginning its limited theatrical run on the Friday following the ceremony, War Witch's ultimate haul of just $70,544 from sixteen theaters made it the lowest-grossing of all the 85th Academy Awards' nominated features (even documentaries).

Komona is haunted by the eerie ghosts of her parents and others who have died. One does not simply leave the Great Tiger, or else Commander Rebelle (Alain Bastien) will come looking.

Its limited commercial value is no mystery. War Witch makes for an uncomfortable watch. Even if largely left to the imagination, the atrocities that Komona has to endure are revolting and unconscionable.
One does wonder what inspired writer/director Kim Nguyen to tell this tale and if the Quebec-born filmmaker of Vietnamese descent truly knows and understands this world he is depicting. I certainly wouldn't be able to recognize if Nguyen was exaggerating or exploiting to serve his storytelling needs.

It's believable and sad that this is the path that children can be taken on. I don't know how else we're intended to respond to the film. Very bad things happen and Komona marches on. Is it meant to inspire, to move, to convey something fundamental about humanity? I'm honestly not sure and while movies shouldn't need to tell you how to feel, this kind of cinema, dispiriting and deliberately not entertaining, is a puzzle to me. And, I'm sure, to the many others, who will choose not to see this and not to feel bad about life and what currently passes for civilization in some distant parts of the world today.

War Witch DVD cover art -- click to buy from Amazon.com DVD Disc Details

1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Dolby Digital 5.1 (French/Lingala), Dolby Stereo 2.0 (French/Lingala)
Subtitles: English (burned-in)
Not Closed Captioned; Extras Not Subtitled or Captioned
Release Date: September 10, 2013
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (DVD-9)
Suggested Retail Price: $26.95
Black Keepcase in Cardboard Slipcover
Also available on Amazon Instant Video

VIDEO and AUDIO

War Witch is treated to a pretty strong 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen presentation. The medium's lack of sharpness and definition is noted, but not tremendously troubling. English subtitles are burned-in, but not in a way that breeds compression woes. If you have a surround sound system, you will want to toggle the soundtrack from the default 2.0 mix to the far more potent Dolby Digital 5.1 track. Sound is an integral component of the film and is thankfully well-presented in 5.1.

Vietnamese-Canadian writer-director Kim Nguyen discusses the obstacles of filmmakers importing weapons into the Democratic Republic of Congo. The shot Tribeca Film used for the poster and cover art makes it a hat trick by serving as the DVD's static main menu as well.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, PACKAGING and DESIGN

War Witch is joined by two short bonus features on DVD, each in English.

"Academy Promo" (4:11) finds writer/director Kim Nguyen discussing the challenges of shooting in the Democratic Republic of Congo and his goals for the film.

"Story Behind the Scene" (1:34) has Nguyen share inside information regarding one brief shot.

The disc opens with trailers for Detachment, Side by Side, and Black Butterflies. Neither these nor War Witch's own trailer are anywhere to be found from the static, silent menus.

An insert within the slipcovered keepcase advertises Tribeca Film.

A very pregnant Komona (Rachel Mwanza) returns to her village to give birth and bury her parents.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

I wish War Witch provoked a greater reaction from me than it did. I have very little to say about this film that you've probably either already seen or have no interest in ever seeing. Well-made though it may be, the drama is distinguished more by its depressing nature, which is obviously off-putting and without anything to really counter or justify it. Ninety minutes of being reminded how bad other parts of the world have it do tend to crush your soul.

HD-loving Oscar completists will be disappointed that War Witch's nomination wasn't enough to land it a Blu-ray. This appears to be the only one of this year's narrative feature nominees not treated to a Blu-ray release. Cinedigm's basic DVD nonetheless serves this film adequately.

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Reviewed September 7, 2013.



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