For many Westerners, the word “Africa” conjures up a few key images: exotic wildlife, tribal communities, and human suffering tend to be most commonly associated with the continent. Sadly, these things don’t even begin to capture the complexity of the second-largest continent on our planet. Just imagine if all you knew of North America was based on images of Yellowstone wildlife, Appalachian poverty, and Native American tribes. These are all important aspects of American life, but they don’t tell the whole story. Within a single African country (there are 54) you are likely to find multiple races, classes, and religious and political perspectives–just a sampling of the diversity that makes up the continent as a whole. Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie beautifully articulated how oversimplification dehumanizes Africans in her TED talk, which I am embedding here because it should be required viewing for every American.
As a writer, Adichie knows the power of telling your own story, and how empowering people across various identities to share their perspectives creates a greater awareness of the complexities within a broader culture.
It was with this awareness that I watched War Witch at February’s Portland International Film Festival. The film’s subject-matter and Oscar nomination (for Best Foreign Language Film) attracted me to it, while the performances and narrative thoroughly impressed me. Nevertheless, I fear that War Witch reinforces the worst assumptions about Africa for the Western audience it targets, even though its story is incredibly important and poignant.
The film follows Komona, a 12 year-old girl abducted by a rebel militia in a sub-Saharan African country (the characters never refer to their location, but the film was shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo). Komona becomes a child soldier but soon gains recognition within the ranks for sensing impending attacks from the enemy before they occur. These battle scenes may be some of the most effective: Komona comes upon phantoms, eerily covered in white powder that resembles ash. The trailer below features a few clips of these ghostly encounters:
Upon first glance, War Witch confirms the stereotypes of Africa as a war-torn place with more suffering than joy. The trailer highlights these tragic elements of the story, using melodramatic music for greater affect. It doesn’t help that the film comes in the wake of the Kony 2012 campaign, which highlighted the war crimes perpetrated by Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda and advocated for Kony’s capture. While well-meaning, this effort to draw attention to the plight of child soldiers raised many eyebrows in activist communities for oversimplifying the politics and history of the issues that the viral Kony 2012 explained. War Witch could similarly be accused of glossing over the causes of the military use of children.
Setting aside such concerns, however, one cannot deny the emotional power of War Witch, which results from its singular focus on Komona’s personal experiences. Actress Rachel Mwanza portrays the title character with such maturity and grace, striking perfectly that balance between vulnerability and strength. More importantly, the story develops Komona into a whole person with a broad range of emotions and experiences. Komona may suffer as a child soldier, but she also experiences the joys of first love. She and another child soldier, Magician, defect from the army and develop a romance. This section of the film, which may be the most pleasurable, uses humor to convey Magician’s pursuit of Komona but also treats the teen lovers seriously. Sadly, the violence of the war tragically interrupts the romance–I won’t go into too much detail on this point, but I will say in a movie full of difficult moments, it may be the saddest one. Still, War Witch somehow finds a way to end with a ray of hope without feeling forced or contrived. In short, you may not walk out of the film feeling good about the state of the world, but you will admire the strength of War Witch’s eponymous heroin.
But while I loved the film and was moved by the story, I am bothered by what it says about our film industry and culture that War Witch is the most celebrated “African” film of the year. I put “African” in quotes because it would be impossible for one film to encompass all of Africa, but also because the film has North American roots. The Canadian writer/director, Kim Nguyen, is of French Canadian and Vietnamese descent. While I am not saying we should limit who can tell what kind of story based on nationality or race, I do feel that the details of the film’s authorship raise uncomfortable questions about who gets to speak in the artistic marketplace for whom and why. I would be more comfortable with War Witch if it were one among many films portraying the varied lives of people in the DRC; instead, it fills a vacuum of representation with more of the same images that Americans associate with Sub-Saharan Africa, even if it does so poignantly.