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Child soldier learns murder and motherhood

  • 14 March 2013

Rebelle (MA). Director: Kim Nguyen. Starring: Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda. 90 minutes

Recent films exploring the plight of child soldiers have chewed over the existential consequences (Incendies) or geopolitical realities (Blood Diamond) of those experiences in a rousingly didactic way. Rebelle (nominated for an Oscar under its evocative English-language title War Witch) takes a more lyrical though no less harrowing approach to its portrayal of a young girl made to exchange her innocence for a weapon in sub-Saharan Africa.

Komona (Mwanza) is 12 when rebel soldiers arrive in her village and brutally conscript her and her fellow youths. Her initiation is to be forced to murder her own parents, a gruesomely symbolic act that has the dual effect of erasing both her former identity and her childhood purity in a single hail of bullets. The cinematography employed throughout the film is raw and unembellished, which only heightens the horror of the events it depicts.

Komona's preternatural instincts in the field of combat see her earn the moniker 'witch' — a reverent title implying mystical power. She claims that the dead speak to her — indeed the grey-caked ghosts of fallen comrades seem to appear to her to warn her of danger. These apparitions do imply a keen intuition, but also suggest a psychological coping device that replaces gruesome realities with an eerie but more palatable fantasy.

She becomes close to a young rebel and healer known as Magicien (Kanyinda), who takes her under his wing and, later, encourages her to flee with him from their ruthless overseers. At this point Rebelle turns into an unlikely love story; Magicien's idiosyncratic attempts to woo her lead to a surprisingly sweet and comical plot diversion. This respite from the violence that has gone before only heightens the dread of what is to come.

They take refuge with Magicien's uncle, a butcher so traumatised by his own experiences as a former soldier that he must keep a vomit bucket beside him as he works his cleaver. This image of the lasting psychological effects of having been a killer stands as an unspoken prophecy for the film's young heroes. It is also a reminder for these two fugitives that the past cannot be shaken off easily. When it does return, it brings bloodshed.

The film opens with Komona, at 14, telling her story to her unborn child. That she has fallen pregnant after being kidnapped by violent men foreshadows a particular brand