“The real battle, the most important battle to be made,” observed director Kim Nguyen in a conference call to press this past January, “was against my own instincts.” The occasion was the announcement that War Witch, his film about a child's induction into a violent militia in the Democratic Republic of Congo, had been nominated for an Oscar, news which made him “just ecstatic” because “awards are very, very important.” If it seems unfair to begrudge Nguyen his unbridled enthusiasm, consider that, in terms of cinematic representation, Africa has a considerably longer—and notoriously problematic—history as an object of study by the West than as a subject of its own; such tactless pronouncements about the promotion of yet another acclaimed Western take on African destitution and warfare consequently smack of unspoken privilege from a filmmaker who, once filming wraps, remains free to return to the comfort of his Montreal home. The last major film produced from within the DRC by a native filmmaker—indeed, one of the few to emerge at all in the wake of Mobutu's late-'90s exile and the civil wars which followed—was Djo Tunda Wa Munga's stylish, Tarantino-indebted heist thriller Viva Riva!, in 2010, and it became notable principally for its anomalous commercial prospects. The first fiction film from the DRC to receive stateside distribution in more than 25 years, Viva Riva!'s surprising international success (it even won an MTV Movie Award, as sure a sign as any of its financial viability) promised the arrival of a burgeoning New Wave of Congolese cinema that regrettably never materialized.
Conventional perhaps to a fault, Viva Riva! was hardly the bastion of grassroots culture expected of an outlying national cinema, but unlike War Witch, a dimension of saleable art-house credibility is ultimately less valuable than the authenticity of its perspective. This isn't to say that non-indigenous filmmakers have no business producing films of their own within and about Africa (Jean Rouch worked there fruitfully, if not always progressively, for more than 60 years), but it's worth remembering that self-representation is itself a function of privilege too rarely extended to marginalized voices, who are instead in a sense spoken for. This sort of representation by proxy is especially disconcerting when what's being articulated is so politically loaded. War Witch, though ostensibly a character study, is nevertheless characterized by the vaguely moralizing tone of an issue film, one whose candor in the face of brutality seems calculated for maximum liberal appeal. Nguyen's vision of the DRC as a virtually inhospitable warzone—where young Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is forced by armed rebels, not three minutes into the film, to murder her own parents with a machine gun—isn't so much wholly disingenuous as it is cannily myopic, offering a narrow view of a Congolese reality whose veracity matters less, frankly, than its effectiveness as drama. To that end, Nguyen pulls out all the proverbial stops: Parenticide is quickly followed by child-beating, mass shootings, rape, and even a swift castration, the lot of it trotted out like a regular cavalcade of human atrocities. It's often quite exciting, but I'm not sure that it should be.
Such calculated horrors arrive, of course, under the banner of realism, as though sensationalism were merely a necessary consequence of honest reportage rather than a tool employed to entertain. Nguyen's favored gimmick is ellipsis—which, to his credit, he uses rather effectively, particularly as it's applied to the depiction of violence. As in most non-indigenous African films, the violence is certainly aestheticized (exploited, even, in the sense that it's heightened for dramatic effect), but the style is more ethereal than might be expected, drifting in and around the most terrible acts themselves with a dreamlike quality far removed from the genre's standard vérité simplicity. The result is a film which more often gives the suggestion of shocking violence than actually showing it in full view, a testament as much to the War Witch's audience-friendly canniness as it is to any pervading sense of modesty or restraint. It's this tendency to play to the (obviously Western) audience, evident in everything from the occasional intrusions of diegesis-breaking magical realism to a protracted and tonally incongruous mid-film romantic segue that recalls Badlands, that defines War Witch above all else. It invites its audience to regard the ruthlessness of a foreign land from a safe and comfortable distance, delivered in a stylized package by yet another in an endless line or privileged voices.