Heart of Darkness

Rebelle (War Witch)
Directed by Kim Nguyen
Starring Rachel Mwanza, Serge Kanyinda, Alain Lino Mic Eli Bastien
2012, 90 minutes.

War WitchKomona is 12 years old and lives in a small village in war-torn Africa. One day she is out gathering food when she sees a gang of rebels closing in. She runs back to warn the village but the rebels are soon upon them, killing the adults indiscriminately — they are recruiting child soldiers. In the aftermath, Komona stands facing her parents, shadowed by the towering presence of the rebel captain. She is handed a gun and told to shoot her parents. If she does not, the rebel captain will kill them instead. With a machete. Komona meets her parents eyes for a long moment, and then it is time to choose. Do it, her father says. She does. The rebel captain congratulates her — “Now you are one of Great Tiger’s rebels.”

Did Komona do the right thing? It seems odd to describe killing your parents execution-style as doing the right thing, yet most of us would similarly hesitate to say what Komona did was wrong. It seems like an impossible situation, but impossible situations happen more often than you’d think. Most of us will be fortunate enough never to find ourselves confronted with Komona’s choice, but all of us can recall the experience of being faced with a decision where there are no good options. In moral philosophy, this is known as a tragic choice.

From an intellectual perspective, tragic choices are untidy. It would be nice if we could come up with some all-purpose general formula that allowed us to decide the right thing to do in any given situation. Indeed, much effort has been expended by countless clever people on just this kind of project, the assumption underlying their theories being that if we follow the process faithfully, the good thing will happen. When reality intrudes on these kinds of fanciful musings however, we may find such formulas are not really up to the job of facing life’s complexities.

The intrusion of reality and the tragic choices it demands are the subject of the Canadian film War Witch, in which Komona’s situation is the opening piece of exposition. The film is set (and shot) in the Republic of Congo, though this is never made deliberately clear. In this the film is like a Coetzee novel, in which the setting is rendered in immense detail but with minimal context — we know implicitly where and when it is, but it could easily be a hundred different times, or places. It is a moment of particular human experience meant to stand for timeless truths about the human condition.

War Witch follows Komona as she is thrown roughly into the world of child rebel soldiers, a life in which she is forced to rely on her cunning and imagination to survive, and where innocence soon loses all meaning. It is not an action film but in fact a quiet coming-of-age story — a close-up study of attempting to find meaning in a bare life where one struggles not in hope, but where the struggle itself is hope. It is bleak, but never bereft of spirit.

There are large stretches of the film where one can easily forget the surrounding conflict and the larger reasons for it. Coltan is mentioned only once, not with menacing significance but with untroubled incomprehension. Komona does not care about the black metallic substance or connect it to her experience — if it were not that it would be something else.

This is not unlike the way many of us live our lives, asleep, shunted from one situation to another, dimly aware of larger forces at work. Numb to the layers of multiplied effect distant events have upon our lives, but feeling their weight nonetheless. We find meaning where we can, and comfort in our agency in doing so. For a time it seems all is as good as can be hoped for, until reality intrudes. Then there are sudden choices to be made, and no good options.

So just how do we go about making tragic choices? War Witch offers an answer, of sorts. Near the end of the second act, Komona is presented with the same impossible choice, under slightly different circumstances. She is older now, only two years more in age but a lifetime older in experience. She has learned first-hand of suffering and death, life and love, loyalty and betrayal. Her choice this time is no less incommensurable, but it is no longer incomprehensible — it is not about counting up the choices, it is about choosing what counts most. Her decision is revealing, and in its aftermath we are shown not just what it is to make a tragic choice, but what it is to live with it. However brutal the circumstance, there is a quiet dignity in that. ◾

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