After a long journey, Friday March 1st the award winning Tribeca Film, Academy Award Nominee for Best Foreign Language Film, and Independent Spirit Award Nominee for Best International Film, War Witch will finally be selectively released into theaters.
A film that Director Ken Nguyen nurtured and helped grow for ten years, he and actress Rachel Mwanza sat down with Press Pass LA to share their experience in creating this emotional story about African children soldiers.
A winner of the Berlin International Film Festival Best Actress Award, at sixteen Rachel has already accomplished and experienced more than most people in one lifetime. Ken translated for Rachel during the interview, but it was clear that she did a lot of her own translating in the film by using her own personal experience growing up in the streets of Kinshasa in her acting. Ken has poured his heart into this film and into changing the life of a young girl forever.
About the film: Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is only 12 years old when she is kidnapped by rebel soldiers and enslaved to a life of guerrilla warfare in the African jungle. Forced to commit unspeakable acts of brutality, she finds hope for survival in protective, ghost-like visions (inspiring a rebel chief to anoint her War Witch), and in a tender relationship with a fellow soldier named Magician (Serge Kanyinda). Together, they manage to escape the rebels’ clutches, and a normal life finally seems within reach. But after their freedom proves short-lived, Komona realizes she must find a way to bury the ghosts of her past.
PPLA: What was the hardest part of the film for Rachel to shoot emotionally because there were so many difficult scenes?
RM: The most annoying part was to fake that I had a boyfriend. It was my first film and I didn’t want people to think that I was really going after that guy.
PPLA: Who are your Hollywood crushes?
RM: Daniel Radcliffe. We tried to meet him at the Oscars, but didn’t have any luck.
PPLA: What was it like going to the Oscars?
RM: I really liked the evening and when the first lady Michelle Obama presented the award. I was really looking forward to trying to meet Beyonce in Hollywood. At a certain point they showed images of hers and I was startled because I thought they were about to present Beyonce, but they didn’t.
PPLA: What was it like for you to travel to California for this event?
RM: It was really long.
KN: Just to put things in perspective, we were part of the Berlin Film Festival so she was already exposed to all this glitz and glam. Nothing as big as the Oscars, but she kind of knew.
PPLA: Where does she live?
KN: She lives in Kinshasa. We created this reinsertion program from the moment we cast her and she is now with a caretaker. The first year was a big challenge for her. She had another caretaker we selected for and it didn’t work out as well as we thought it would. She was in the public school system which wasn’t adapted at all to the challenges she had to go through. She didn’t know how to read or how to write, but at the same time had the maturity of a young adult, but sometimes she’s also a kid. All of those things were so different. She had two tutors who helped her personally for her schooling.
PPLA: Where is her family?
KN: Rachel is a kid from the streets. From the age of six she was abandoned by her parents and she lived with her grandmother until the age of ten. At a certain point her grandmother said ‘Rachel I can’t provide for you anymore you have a better chance if you go in the streets’. So she lived in the streets. When we cast her she was in and out of the streets.
RM: My birth parents are divorced. My father abandoned my mother. He went away and married another woman. He suffered as well. He had some wealth before, but now he is struggling.
PPLA: How did you survive on the streets?
RM: While I was in the streets, I had to look for food people had thrown away. The trash that is here in Beverly Hills compared to the trash in Kinshasa is very clean. People step on food there.
KN: Before we did the film we did all the medical tests to see if she was healthy and she passed everything. She is really a survivor. She is really strong.
PPLA: How long did she live on the streets?
RM: She lived in the streets and centers, but centers that were concrete boxes and with no mattresses.
PPLA: How did she get into the character?
KN: What was amazing in Rachel’s talent is when she did these amazingly powerful troubling scenes, such as when she kills her parents, we would ask her how she got there. It was mostly in preparation because we wanted to make sure that she was psychological strong enough to deal with all these issues. Turns out it was almost a non-issue because she was a teenager at the time not a six year old. Having been from the streets of Kinshasa she was really already use to all those issues in the script. What’s amazing is we would ask her how she would get those scenes done, how did she nail them, and she said “Well you know I just think about my past and the sad things that happened to me and they just come up, and I’m really proud because I got to do that scene.” It’s purely Actor’s Studio method acting, we didn’t give that to her, she came up with that herself.
PPLA: How did you cast her?
KN: We did an open call, but there was this Belgium documentary that was made before in which Rachel played in it called “Kinshasa Kids.” They just told us we should meet one person and it was Rachel.
PPLA: So she previously acted before?
KN: It was a documentary, a kind of docu-fiction actually.
PPLA: Was this experience cathartic for her?
RM: Not necessarily, but it was pleasurable work and I’m proud that it gave me the tools to bring the emotions to life.
PPLA: She is a natural born actress. She is so expressive.
RM: For the kids in the streets it happens that way. Nowadays everybody has plastic surgery and has to conform to this certain aesthetic.
KN: Everyone is getting really homogenized in casting. These kids on the streets, life has shaped them. They’re still really alive. There’s something about that which is really powerful. She has the hunch and the intuition of creating this foundation to help the kids in the streets. It’s really embryonic.
PPLA: Why was it important for you to make this movie Ken? It took about ten years.
KN: Initially it was this sheer power of the story that had a breadth to it. As I did the research over the years, I felt a human importance of giving a voice to people that don’t have a voice. Even documentaries we rarely see women child soldiers, they’re all guys. As a matter of fact 50% of child soldiers are girls.
PPLA: Was this physical demanding for her?
KN: It was really demanding because when you’re a kid in the streets you do what you have to do. Structure wasn’t given to her. To act for six or seven hours, sometimes eight hours, very rarely, demanded a lot of concentration. It’s not small scenes she was acting. She was there everyday. She had been through such a process I think it was beneficial to her, but it was a challenge.
PPLA: What’s next for you Rachel?
RM: I would like to leave Kinshasa in a few years, but the most important thing to me is to find a way to take care of all the kids I see in the streets. I can really relate to them. It hurts me very much.
PPLA: How did you get the money to provide for her and her caretakers now?
KN: Rachel has a salary. We decided to be a bit paternalistic. She was 14 she couldn’t’ have her own bank of account. It’s not say that the people who are taking care of her now aren’t on it, it’s just to be on the ethical side. Most of it is her own salary that’s owed to her, which is administrated in a way to provide for food, rent, and the school. When she turns 18 she’s gonna have a chunk of money for whatever project she has, it could be a foundation, or if she wants to buy a lot or a house. We didn’t realize how expensive it is. Western Union is expensive. With all the long distance phone calls and traveling, the bill came out to be a little higher than expected. It’s a good business deal. We were doing a job with the film, but it’s not a humanitarian charity. She deserves everything that she is given because she’s traveling for promotional work. It’s not a gift, she’s doing it. She brought the movie to the Oscars.
PPLA: What was the major struggle in creating a film over a ten year period?
KN: For me writing the story, sometimes even after you get the script. I had a big issue with killing the Magician, I kept trying to make him survive. There were many versions of that for three or four years I’d been rewriting. It’s always in a writing phase no matter what you’re doing. For five years I fought to keep the scene of the albinos. People kept telling me your moving away from the story line, there’s no use in that. I think it’s one of the most amazing scenes in the film. At a certain point people keep telling me that and you start doubting yourself.
PPLA: Were there any connections with the white rooster and the albinos?
KN: One of the most important parts of the scripts is to show the idiosyncrasies in this war country. You have all these struggles, and then these simple love jealousy stories.
PPLA: You say there are parallels with our country and the Democratic Republic of the Congo? What are they?
KN: With LA? When I walked on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with the stars and you see this Transformer, this guy sitting in the trash for money, and these people chanting for God. They look so lost like the streets of Kinshasa. On the streets in Kinshasa you see these healers that say there’s these exorcisms, but I see that in Hollywood too.
PPLA: How difficult was it for you to get this film made?
KN: Funding wasn’t as easy as it should be. It was tough. It took one or two years. There’s this really good conjecture for filmmaking in Canada where films get funded not just based off of box office potential, but also the balance between creative merit and box office. The biggest issue to get funding in Canada is to get those scripts right and to find good writers.
Rachel Mwanza was granted a Visa to travel to the United States to attend the Oscars just a week before the big day! Both the film and her real life Cinderella story have inspired so many. War Witch opens today in limited release. For more information and to watch the trailer visit War Witch at TribecaFilm.com