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Berlin 2012: 'War Witch' review

★★★★☆
Surely one of the frontrunners for this year's coveted Berlinale Golden Bear award, Kim Nguyen's War Witch (Rebelle, 2012) is a harrowing exploration of life as one of Africa's child soldiers, following Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a young girl who is kidnapped from her village by a group of rebel fighters. Forced to gun down members of the government army, Komona takes solace in fellow soldier Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), a young albino who later becomes her boyfriend, escaping their unit in order to start a new life together.

Set in an unnamed sub-Saharan Africa (perfectly substituting for a number of current real-world nations, with the Congo used as authentic locations), War Witch makes no apologies for its 'tough watch' status, yet the film's most horrific sequences (executions, instances of rape etc) are implied rather than graphically depicted. Instead of a gawdy, sensationalist bloodbath or glossy Hollywood presentation of child soldiering (look no further than Edward Swick's Blood Diamond [2006]), Nguyen's latest is a delicately shot, carefully structured piece that evokes a genuine emotive response from its audience, rather than a robotic spasm of repulsion.

A huge amount of credit should go to Nguyen and also his predominately young, semi-professional cast, who completely encapsulate their well-drawn characters and add a much-needed dose of humanity to what could have been - in less proficient hands - a depressing slice of miserablist stereotyping.

A significant part of the film is dedicated to Komona and Magicien's sweet-natured courtship, with our young female protagonist challenging her guardian to acquire a rare white cockerel in order to seal her hand in marriage. These tender moments are among some of the finest in the film, and importantly gives Western audiences a chance to see another side of African culture aside from civil war and mass genocide.

Golden Bear aside, War Witch will undoubtedly be remembered as one of Berlinale 2012's finest features, a sometimes gruelling, often heart-wrenching drama about a young girl's formative years, whilst consequently wrestling with some of the most difficult circumstances imaginable. With the help of Nguyen and a number of other hugely talented filmmakers, Africa has truly made its presence felt on the cinematic landscape as one of the emerging powers in film.

For more Berlin Film Festival 2012 coverage, simply follow this link.

Daniel Green

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