War WitchWithin the first five minutes of Kim Nguyen’s War Witch, the twelve-year-old Komona  (Rachel Mwanza, who won a Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for her performance) already has an AK-47 in her hands with instructions to kill her parents. Rather than letting them suffer a more painful death at the hands of a machete-wielding soldier, she decides to kill them both. From that moment on she is a War Witch; she can see spirits, including her parents’, who warn her of soldiers’ presence. Whether what she sees is real or just the product of a hallucinogenic sap is ambiguous, but the beauty of it is unambiguous. The spirits, painted men with dead eyes, climb through the trees of a forest to Angolan pop, in one of a number of gorgeous, lyrical sequences in an otherwise inert film.

Part of what makes the film seem less-than-vital is the protagonist, who seems dead inside from the outset. As she says in a voiceover, during her time with the soldiers she “had to learn to keep [her] tears in [her] eyes.” The horrific things Komona has done and seen keep her humanity locked up deep inside— one of the greatest tragedies of the film. At one point, her voiceover refuses to describe what happened to a family, because, she says, “then you would stop listening to me.”

It would be nice if the film had taken it’s own advice. We are shown a number of murders, something with which film audiences are, by now, completely unsurprised. But War Witch will show you difficult things you’ve never seen before. In one scene, Komona prepares a “poisoned rose” for the commander who rapes and impregnates her: a large seed with a hidden razorblade placed inside her vagina. In another, she gives birth by herself on a riverbank, and the camera shows a (certainly digital) baby’s head crowning.

Yes, these images elicit visceral reactions. Yes, things are extremely difficult in Africa. But the two aren’t necessarily related. Of course Nguyen meant to use these sequences to shock us out of the everyday filmgoing experience, to open us to the kinds of atrocities that still happen to this day. She is successful in shocking the audience, but that shock seems not to have any broader significance.  Instead the audience becomes like Komona, so revolted that we become dead inside, unable to feel anything at all.