Kim Nguyen: The horror… the horror…

The horror… the horror…

Kim Nguyen: "[Rachel Mwanza] has the charisma of a big movie star"

Kim Nguyen brilliantly depicts the plight of an African child soldier in Rebelle (War Witch)

Following Eastern European fantasy Le Marais, B-movie pastiche Truffe and Middle Eastern adventure La Cité, flawed films which nevertheless showcased his remarkable visual skills, Kim Nguyen finally knocks one out of the park with Rebelle, his fourth feature.

"For this film I decided to let go of storyboards and to forget a bit about the screenplay while we were shooting a scene, to let moments happen instead," explains the writer-director. "It was a lot more instinctive and, in theory, we strayed from the initial plan, yet ultimately, everyone tells me that the film is like they imagined it when they read the script. Maybe because it’s more faithful to the emotions [than to the words]? In any case, it’s the first time I see in one of my films what I wanted to do at the beginning."

Non-professional Rachel Mwanza won the Best Actress award at the Berlin Film Festival for her utterly heartbreaking performance as Komona, a young girl from an unidentified African country (though the film was shot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who’s snatched from her village and made into a child soldier by a local rebel faction. "It isn’t just her naturalness; she has the charisma of a big movie star," enthuses Nguyen. "It’s like seeing Brad Pitt before he was Brad Pitt."

The Québécois filmmaker is also glad he got to make a film in Africa that doesn’t feature a white protagonist, for a change. "I’m a bit tired of seeing films about African tragedies in which the person we’re made to feel empathy for is always an Occidental. That’s fine, but there has to be balance, we have to make films about the true heroes of these tragedies."

Rebelle is narrated by Komona herself, talking to her unborn baby about the horrors she experienced from 12 to 14 years old. Her tale feels both scary-real and fantastical; deemed a witch by the rebels, Komona is haunted by visions of her dead parents and other ghosts. "If we had done the film in an objective way, like a documentary, it would have been interesting, but it wouldn’t have conveyed how a child soldier can commit all those violent acts," says Nguyen. "The ghosts illustrate the influence of drugs and superstition, which are part of the indoctrination process."

The hallucinatory, mythical quality of the storytelling and the striking imagery created by Nguyen and cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc often recall Apocalypse Now as well as its inspiration, Joseph Conrad’s Congo-set Heart of Darkness. "There’s definitely a bit of homage to Conrad," admits Nguyen. "Whether we want it or not, sometimes our films mirror something universal."

Rebelle (War Witch)

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