© 2013 by James Clark
Kim Nguyen’s War Witch (2012) may be too easy to love and too hard to understand. That concern is not meant as a dismissal, but instead as part and parcel of a brilliant and daring Surrealist filmic campaign.
The enormously engaging dilemma at the center of this project can be introduced with regard to the very first episode. Amidst arid desolation, a squalid seaside village in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is quickly overrun by automatic-weapons-bearing militants arriving in boats. Their objective, it soon becomes obvious (but at the same time confusing) is to acquire adolescents to replenish the staff of their army. Even twenty-somethings apparently won’t do, as we see several of that ilk gunned down on the dusty street. On the assailants’ snagging their prey, those other villagers having till then avoided being murdered are summarily slaughtered (for the sake of sustaining maximum elusiveness). The figure we have followed from the first moment and whose perspective we adopt, a twelve-year-old girl, Komona—this film being structured by three chapters (12, 13, and 14) regarding Komona’s peculiar three-year progression—is immediately thrust into a most demanding boot camp. An officer hands her an automatic firearm, and orders her to shoot her (young) parents. “If you don’t kill them [by way of instant death], I will—with my machete. They’ll suffer a lot.” Her father says, “Komona, do what he says.” She fires away and then she cries, in a thin, smokey way.
I think we have to hang on to and explore the situation of the age-pool of this rough recruitment. Having erupt in our faces a spectacular instance of political miasma, we are apt to punch in the neat little rationalist-humanitarian program about our being guilty for landing these essentially decent folks in dire straits and being obliged to drop everything to rescue them. That would ring down the curtain before we could begin to proceed with what Nguyen himself has to reveal. Perhaps some such haste has led to a torrent of critics loving this movie to bits. Accordingly, its being touted as heart-warming moral and religious heroics in face of current-events appallment might have had something to do with, despite winning a Best Actress award at Berlin, being an Academy Award nominee for Best Foreign Picture and winner of the Best Film award at the Tribeca Festival, its failing to attract serious distribution and visibility and grossing a grand total of, more than a year after its introduction, $57,000.
Rebelle is a far cry from a CNN documentary on child soldiers and their troubled homeland. Instead of discharging the pat filibuster about what a shockingly bad old world we live in, let’s let the film bring to us what it wants to show about Komona’s exertions in the grip of those who foster her and her generation as pit bulls: sheer, virtually inexhaustible, and primarily physiological, killing machines. This issue, we shall see, is far more an enterprise of reckless physics than it is reckless politics. But, most of all, Rebelle (re-Belle, [Belle, again]) is about the uncanny rebelliousness of a virtuoso poet of that body far transcending physiology and physics.
While still somebody’s traumatized little girl, on the power boat ride into the jungle, she encounters one of the attackers, an albino, named, Magician, not much older than she is but with so strange a presence as to begin to cast healing light upon Komona’s disorientation. Before we consider more fully her very peculiar recovery (as being absolutely different from a return to the status quo) let’s notice that this low-budget film (but one that is acutely designed to capitalize upon its lacking gorgeous camera effects) clads its phantasmal kick in generally raw, banal visuality. As such, its visceral pulse indicates that any uprising of poetry in this eventuation has to perpetually deal with a cloying and perverse denial of poetry. After killing her parents and thereby plunging into a state seething with nightmarishly material finitude, she hears the officer enthuse, “You are now a rebel of Great Tiger!” (a situation coinciding [with pointed differences] with Belle’s fainting on first encountering Bête, the great lion). Magician, though like Cocteau’s Bête, locked into a physiological, emotionally volatile register of grotesque wastedness, happens to be, like that precursor, a (budding) practitioner of encompassing the phenomenal as having a purchase upon magisterial and hence “magical” navigation amidst a world of dismal labyrinths.
Leading up to the launch of that other ride she’ll have some control over, there is, at a jungle marshalling point, the provisioning of the new recruits, first, with footwear, and then with weapons. The boots are dumped out on the jungle floor, and they remind one of castoffs at a homeless shelter. The guns, on the other hand—preceded by tree branches cut to size, for a few minutes of training in posture—are large Kalashnikov hand-held cannons, a taste of carriage-trade consumerism. The ceremonial aspect of the donning of this equipment equivocally denies organically-based, domestic gratifications and installs a sort of mall-rat benediction upon what fills the vacuum. “Respect your guns. They are your mother and your father…” At this point we hear, in voice-over, a sullen Komona telling us, “When I started to work for the rebels I had to try very hard to keep my tears inside. Or I would go into the forest so no one could hear me crying…” She is also (as a girl of 14) telling this, by way of a preparatory run-through for a bid toward mutual understanding she’ll find herself involved with all through her life, to her child, along with all the incidents of her odyssey. “I want you to know how I became a soldier… It’s very important that you know what I did, so I’ll have the strength to love you.”
From there we begin to discover what soldiering means in this context. An attack upon government troops nearby is given direction by a medicine man who rattles stones in his clasped hands and screams to release some physical momentum. On the move, there is Komona as part of the train of troopers in single-file. She is carrying with her burly physique a heavy load of supplies on her back, like a donkey on a dead-end trek, discernibly more balanced than her masters. She slips and falls on uneven terrain, and like Robert Bresson’s Balthazar she’s whipped with a switch by the officer, now looking like a relative of the latter film’s Gerard, the deranged smoothy, readily ingratiating himself with the powers-that-be, the better to practise his sadistic priorities. (Earlier that day, he lounges in a hammock, and there is Komona nearby, vigorous and exhausted, cutting out a bivouac with a machete. We recall that, in contrast to the sneakers given to the boys, she is directed to put on a pair of rubber boots, sure to add discomfort in temperatures over 100 degrees. You get the distinct sense, long before a shot is fired, that she is not supposed to be around very long [a sort of booster rocket].)
Reaching the front, the youngsters are supplied with narcotic “magic milk,” in the form of sap from a big tree; and she becomes less anxious. She had, a bit earlier, been given a perfunctory lesson as to operating her weapon; and as she hesitatingly fired off a few rounds, her whole body conveyed that she was riven by the memory of having used such a machine, at point-blank range, on her parents. Now under the auspices of being shot up in another way—a way she has begun to cultivate, not as preferable to being hacked to pieces by a machete, but as preferable to coming in as a cry-baby—she begins to find in the omnipresent plant life and the skies a study in, if not winning the war, making some sense of it. As seen from ground level, she looks closely at the forest canopy, her eyes glazed, and her mouth agape. There is a blur of greenery, and her eyes follow a dead vine up to the tops of the trees. The implicit developmental momentum of this departure for Komona is cradled in silence, save for the sounds of the wind in the foliage and the songs of birds. The final stage of this ascent to the extraordinary involves her being amongst a swirling upper area of the jungle, her face uplifted, her mouth open in awe and her eyes grazed by the spectre of something having surmounted a hitherto persistent everyday.
Into battle, then, with a purchase upon the wellspring of not only the ways of liveliness but of death, she fearlessly lopes into view and the chalky corpses she soon beholds bear witness to prowess that need not be spelled out in bullets finding their mark. That the first corpses we see are her parents, deftly completes the process of hot lead (flying to and encountering matter [animal, vegetable and mineral] with startlingly sharp reverb) while keeping our eyes on the wider war for her. What we do observe about the specifics is how far in advance of the other young troopers (spurred on by the officer and the witch doctor) Komona is. Now after nightfall, she crouches in tall, thick grasses, breathing hard. In a reprise of the homage to the forest heights, her eyes now fire up the lingering presence of her parents, and the figment of her father yells, “Komona! Run!” In her strategic retreat are: her comrades’ fire covering her; a quick glimpse of government troops in helmets; and many of the recent recruits being mowed down. Then there are many milky, nude dead bodies on the ground; they slowly stand up, their eyes having disappeared from their sockets; and they climb the tall trees, moving backwards. The dead of both sides are thus to the fore—proffering a confluence in sharing death and proffering their and her being touched by primal, evolutionary and confluent animal and vegetable life. Here voice-over here, to her child and to us, reaches remarkable levels of narrative lucidity and poetry, primed by a melancholy folk song. “When we take the magic milk from the tree, we can see things. We see ghosts all over. It helps me to do the job, because when I see the ghosts I don’t see red meat leaking red on the ground. All I see are the ghosts that walk in the forest. There are many, many ghosts here. You wouldn’t believe. Too many ghosts. Even when I sleep I see ghosts inside my head… I don’t know if you’ll believe me, but I’m the only one from my village who survived the bullets of the government. That’s how they decided that I was a witch…”
Back in camp that morning, while Magician marvels in appallment at the casualties (he’s seen to be raving, but shot in silence), the officer smokes a cigarette and looks intently at Komona. Her face is impassive as she reclines, now a force of impressive grace, and, suddenly, strongly aware of the uniqueness of her presence. (“And I could tell the demons from the government were hiding in the forest…”) No longer a confused beast of burden, she sees herself sharply (primordially) at odds with not only a military/political opponent but also the far less than sterling predators who got her into this, unwittingly unleashing a real (not a trumped-up) “Great Tiger.” In his attempt to fathom where this leaves him, the officer would also be trying to finesse to himself that he stands exposed as a coward, all his military/political actions amounting to bankrupt adventurism, fuelled by hapless children. (Never mind the righting of wrongs. Warfare for him and his cronies is a blast of [shabby] cool, as far as they can see, to be had nowhere else.)
From this moment, we enter upon the chapter with the heading, “13 Years-Old.” It underlines (with true surreal audacity) that Komona could no longer be accurately called a child. Now a young warrior, she perforce enters upon the real war. Brought to the rebel headquarters (a settlement with its now-defunct tourist hotel [looking a bit like an airport control tower] having been converted to Big Tiger’s command centre), she remains now pointedly impassive, quietly energized, as a noisy celebration in honor of the victory she effected catches fire. The witch doctor leads the chanting with his ornate falsetto, and she is hoisted on someone’s shoulders. Rifle fireworks shred the night, and a couple of kids kick around a soccer ball. The Big Tiger (odd he would choose an animal that’s completely unviable on that continent)—from the top of whose palace we see birds cutting out at dusk—invites her into his lookout promenade (possibly once a place to observe in perfect safety roaming lions; thus the entrance of a beast not on the program would evidence a bit of cheeky wit) and tries a gambit by which he hopes to relieve the confusion and apprehension her amazing success has caused him. “They say you can see government soldiers hidden in the forest.” She says nothing and he goes on to present her with an automatic almost twice the size of the one she has been using. “I have a gift for you,” he feels compelled to say to someone who has quite obviously killed way more people than he ever will. “My wizard [the shaky cheerleader] gave it magic powers.” Though increased firepower would always be welcome in the place where she is, she would be underwhelmed by any spiritual input coming from that rancid pipsqueak.
Despite the adulation, she is immediately pressed into service mining the so-called rebellion’s profit centre, a metallic ore (coltan) used in the manufacture of cell phones. Once again a donkey carrying prodigious weight, she (taking a rest) is whipped by a commander and Magician intervenes. “Stop beating Big Tiger’s (‘tigre royal’—royal cat) War Witch!” Magician stares down the elder (all of, say, 26). We are meant to be taken aback by this multiplicity of command, as it makes palpable Komona’s public sphere in all its clearly exposed (by her) derangement, anarchy and humbug. (Hanging on to that enervation, we see Magician and another boy enacting some movie brawl or pro-wrestling phoniness, an incident accented by being followed by wide-eyed kids watching on TV a budding local auteur’s homage—consisting of a strident matinee idol declaiming, “I’m going back to fight for Big Tiger!”) The middle-management maverick will come back into the picture when—after Komona and Magician desert under the dawning upon them that their winning streak must soon end—he catches up with them (floating the pretext that Big Tiger wants his mascot back). Accompanying him is the officer who, true to form, demands that she shoot her friend and goes on to machete him when she refuses his command and joins Magician on the firing line. The commander drags her away; installs her as his mistress; impregnates her and gets macheted in turn by her. (This sketch is by way of illuminating the narrative stage of her entering upon a very demanding, extra-military war.)
“13 Years-Old” comprises putting into place Komona’s equilibrium in coming unstuck from windfall tranquilization. A sortie shows her (no ghosts in sight) gunning down in the back a fleeing government soldier and then going on to finish the (now routine) job with a machete. The subsequent nocturnal celebration begins to look more like routine bingeing. There is a quite detailed depiction of her and Magician leading now seemingly much younger recruits than they into battle against the regulars over a terrain of boulders along a river. The magic milk (days old, in a grotty plastic bag, by contrast with the fresh-off-the-plantation product) is a factor; but it is a factor including her reverie about the chief of her home village having a fling with the young girls, including her. She rather mawkishly enacts his come-on: “You are so pretty, Mademoiselle!” (This, also, by way of anticipating a new ecstatic cross-current, namely, Jacques Demy’s Donkey Skin, which will hold up the poetic side [Balthazar, again] of some pretty ragged prosaicness between Komona and Magician. [Nguyen’s choice of setting for this entirely on-location film, the Democratic Republic of Congo, would be a sort of Magnetic Pole for prosaic depression.] In Demy’s film, it is not only the chieftain (the King) but the father of the magnetic protagonist who essays some challenging hanky-panky.)
In this, her (virtually) final episode of kicking ass on a battlefield, she has that quasi-cannon the Tiger gave her (while Magician backs her up with a non-portable fixture). She, alone in front, takes on with gusto several dozen soldiers. Then her derring-do, in slow-motion, reeks a bit of the kiddie TV clip. Even the throng of government ghosts is less than stunning. Instead of another trip back to the homestead and any-excuse-for-a-party homage, she has the bona fides to see the sense in Magician’s argument, “that one day or other I would die…” He also informs her that Great Tiger had killed three previous incarnations of War Witch, on their beginning to slip. (She would have sensed that she was already starting to slip.) He had begun to ape the Wizard, preparing fetishes and preaching to some very young kids, “Why is our leader called ‘Great Tiger’? Because his magic is so great!” So begins the most dramatically subtle and absorbing passage of the film, with the pair of them no longer at an exaggerated pitch of activity and having to find great magic elsewhere.
From the launch of their skiff escape vehicle along that river recently awash in blood, they slip and slide toward absurdity. She complains about his rowing (she being from a water region; he, presumably, not). “Even a pig rows better than you!” In voice-over she tells that unpleasantly-conceived child about her first launch toward the delight of love. “After we ran away, Magician told me he loved me and wanted to marry me.” It really helps here to have seen a Surrealist precursor to this Surrealist film of today, namely, Donkey Skin, where the Princess puts off the King—with the assistance of a forest magician, the Lilac Fairy—in his rush to tie the knot, by ordering a series of wildly unmakeable wedding dresses (a series, because each demand is, incredibly, met)—for instance, one having the exact color of the moon and the sun. The not-ready-to-settle-down Komona, having taken up an agenda requiring a lot of solitude, insists on an engagement gift of a white rooster (a near impossibility in those parts). In the course of farcically being on the hook to produce an entity which most of his contacts don’t even believe to exist and ridicule him about, he (and she) steal some clothes off of a clothesline, subsequently getting chased like errant hillbillies by a machine-gun-toting Big Mama. The outfit the Princess does choose (for going on the lam) is the skin of a donkey that excretes money and gems (the kingdom’s main source of revenue). So in suiting up as they do, the pair toying with the logistics of love evoke the Princess’ eerie and humiliating tailspin. A white rooster is eventually found (surrealistically enough, in the compound of a community of albino blacks); and they have one meaningful night together (a scene of restrained caressing, putting to shame the Princess’ romantic “bliss,” devoid of sensuality and full of childish appetite).
They proceed into a thrum of unstable domesticity. That they are transported toward a site, Magician’s uncle’s place, holding out enough balance to foster the discoveries they confusedly crave, by a generous motorcyclist introduces the ominous factor of psychopathic motorcyclist, Gerard, scourge of Balthazar, the donkey, in the film of the same name, whose frequently beaten protagonist reminds one of Komona. They are ensconced, thanks to the vast travel improvement upon Gerard, at that destination whose owner is named, “the Butcher,” belying his gentle and stable ways (but covering his job, and also the unspeakable blood-letting that wiped out every relative but Magician [the Butcher’s being a straightforward black implying that Magician is a relative by marriage]). There they enjoy a few days of globally accessible honeymoon. A bit of horseplay in a grassy expanse takes us back to the Princess and her Prince Charming, being unbearably able to stand pat with saccharine trivia in such a locale. Komona and Magician are, by contrast, tentative explorers, not consumers of crudely designed and ponderously marketed romantic theatre. Accordingly, Komona is only slightly amenable to working the farmstead’s fruit crop from high upon less than magnificent palm trees. Their operation of a press that yields orange-colored oil, speaks to their wider task of deriving a form of fruitful purity from a heavily compromised context. The former consummate warrior is seen courteously entertaining a child on a teeter-totter. Then they are ambushed while harvesting the fruit, and everything comes crashing down for their bid to reach a wide coherence.
After setting a trap for the kidnapper, in the form of an avocado stone sheathing a razor blade and concealed in her vagina, going on to provide a sharp distraction during coitus, allowing her to cut down yet another enemy, she escapes. While shown on the run, she is able to enunciate to her child and to us that she has the heart to recognize that the struggle (the war), whose faltering steps we have just taken in, comes down to reaching out to (perhaps odious) others. (Her abduction by the commander (whose command is hugely suspect) is the entryway to “14 Years-Old.”) “Each day I pray God to give me the strength to love you—even if you look like your father who forced me to sleep with him even when I cried…” (A variant of this meditation on tolerating and enjoying others runs, “Each day I pray to God I won’t throw you in the river.”) She is in battle fatigues (courtesy of the assailant who has pretended to be a warrior and who [and not Big Tiger] has pressed her into doing her thing once again—adding to the supposed lustre of his coolness) and carries an AK 47—very apt for a real warrior entering upon a real war. Her needs at this point are twofold: to succeed with her pregnancy and its apprehension-causing guest. (She has, we find soon, to find someone to remove the booby trap from her vagina.); and to reach out to the vision of her parents, by performing some kind of burial tribute to them as beloved figures she has treated roughly, circumstances notwithstanding. (A third assignment [included in the first] has to do with returning to the Butcher, her new relative.)
Her outreach is rocky at best. She’s tossed out of a Red Cross centre for refusing to relinquish her weapon. An exorcist extracts money from her, and then she politely countenances a route that’s clearly a washout. “You must pray a lot and ask God for forgiveness. So that Komona’s spirit returns to your body.” A generous government soldier takes her to the Butcher—commandeering a hearse—and the latter’s elderly house lady removes the deadly fruit. (This second instance of being given a lift by someone with unselfish instincts fortifies the sense of playable moments where nearly everyone belongs in a hearse.) The Butcher urges her, “Stay. You are like my daughter… I will teach you how to take care of the goats…” But her parents’ ghosts haunt her, demanding the homage of a burial of some token whereby their presence will receive due love. Desultory play with the white rooster tied by its leg (this unlovely upshot reminding us of the struggle for synthesis emergent in the configuration of a black albino; and that going for a precious, absolutist outcome clearly won’t do here), and a droning steel gate to the compound weigh upon her. She beats up the elderly attendant—“My gun is my child. It’s my father. It’s my mother. [A conveyance of loving efficacy.] I will kill you. Give me my gun…”—and she heads into the night, the Butcher calling haplessly, “Wait!”
On the paddle back to the deserted village by the sea, she completes her labor; and she, with the baby boy, completes the tribute. Headed back to the Butcher’s, she says, “I’ll call you Magician [Daddy’s kill]. I hope you will become strong and courageous like him.” (Just before being cut down [and any lax over- fondness toward and intimidation by DNA theory is going to make this moment really wobble], Magician tells her, “You’re my wife. Be happy.”) She catches a lift on a truck, its open back jammed with travellers and refugees. The driver (another Samaritan), who had stopped without her flagging him down, assures her, “No one has money… Climb up!” A lady takes the baby, noticing that Komona is exhausted. For a moment she sits there on the floor, rolling through wilderness, in an awareness of sweethearts as well as savages. But she’s far from elated, her disastrous and rewarding taste of world history still a bit too much for her. Then she lies down to sleep and the truck recedes along the open road.
She begins her hopefully edifying story by addressing her child (and the novices that we all are here), “Listen good when I talk to you!” With her hair a packet of coils, she looks very much like a wild beast (but bristling with antennae receivers, her head a sort of radio telescope). There is a plethora of Beasts and Belles occupying the narrative, and it is the most variable instancing of mutual transfer of powers that leaves its mark upon this bountiful film.