Interview: Kim Nguyen on Conjuring Magic Out of Chaos in the Congo With “War Witch”

The writer/director of the Oscar-nominated character study of a female child soldier in Africa talks about the freeing feeling of finally letting go with his fourth feature....Read More
Rachel Mwanza in a scene from Kim Nguyen's film War Witch

It’s hard to imagine Kim Nguyen sitting behind a computer. A dashing presence in person who cuts a profile of an adventurer, you’d never believe his latest one began online.

“One thing that’s cool with Wikipedia and all of these things [on the Internet] is that you have a massive amount of information,” Nguyen says. “It’s getting easier and easier to just travel anywhere and find the best stories and just go there and make films.”

Without that, Nguyen might never have even considered making “War Witch,” but you can’t say he’s not contributing to the conversation himself. As just the second filmmaker to shoot a film in the region, Nguyen is filling the void in the outside world, inured by the stream of tragic news to come out of the Congo on an hourly basis and the vast amounts of decontextualized facts available from a Google search. A drama that follows a young girl (Rachel Mwanza) into womanhood, finding herself regressing into the anonymity of being a child soldier in an unidentified part of Central Africa until she’s spared when others become convinced she has the ability to see ghosts and finds meaning when he finds love with another soldier named the Magician (Serge Kanyinda), “War Witch” commands your full attention with its commitment to authenticity, not only in braving the ongoing violence in the area, but by conjuring up the unforgiving nature of war and the belief in mysticism that’s an ingrained part of the culture.

Shortly after the film was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foriegn Film for this year’s Oscars, Nguyen spoke about the occasionally tumultuous making of a film that he considers a personal breakthrough, transferring the action from Burma where he first became aware of the plight of child soldiers and discovering that he rather enjoyed letting things get out of his control every once in a while as a director.

What originally got you interested in this subject?

It was 10 years ago and I read about these two child soldiers. They were from Burma and one of the two brothers woke up one day and said that he was the reincarnation of God. He said that his fellow soldiers should start following his teachings and respect God’s teachings and he would literally tell people where the soldiers of the government would attack because he wanted to help the rebels win against the government. This [was] like a mythical, Greek tragedy [that] just touched something in me and it led me to do more research. Eventually, it led me to Africa and one of the first things I read was about the fact that it’s not just boy soldiers, but also about girl soldiers, so I wanted to address this issue.

The narration of the film is from the perspective of a mother to her unborn child. Was that always part of the film?

There were these small, two-page stories I read that were written by ex-child soldiers and it was part of a reinsertion and rehabilitation program. They would learn to write while doing this and [they wrote about how they] aren’t allowed to talk, to show their emotions. I quickly realized that our [main] character couldn’t talk about her own life, so that’s why I decided on the inner voice because if she had spoken these things that she says in the film, it wouldn’t be credible. Eventually when we read up on girl soldiers and decided that she was going to be pregnant, what better way to convey all of the paradoxes and the idiosyncrasies of this character than to just have her talk to her baby to come, realizing that she’s scared and that she doesn’t know she’s going to be able to love him.

This may have been an observation rather than a question, but one of the things that was interesting to me about this was how the act of making a film about this was parallel to the balance of realism and magic that exists for the characters in the film…

That’s interesting. It’s really hard to pinpoint how we filmed the film and even now, it’s almost we went into a trance to do this film. I remember on day two, we were filming when the rebels came into the village and it’s kind of an organized chaos and it was in the fabric of filming. We would treat the actors as molecules and it’s important to keep the vibration of that molecule in the sense of giving it some freedom to go where they want, so we organized these actors so they would confront each other, but we wouldn’t give them specific orders of what they should do and not to do. You just go there and the camera was almost another character in that. We had ideas of the aesthetics, of our relationship with characters, of the proximity of characters, but it wasn’t storyboarded. I had discussions with my [cinematographer] and he integrated that into his general sense and awareness, but then we just let it go free and he would let his own instincts almost as another character nourish the filming. 

You said during AFI Fest this was just the second film to shoot in the Congo. What was it like to shoot in unexplored territory like that?

One of the biggest treats of being in film is that you’re going on an adventure, but at the same time, you’re very protective [of your cast and crew]. That’s the contrast in filmmaking. We went there in the Congo and it was very complex, probably one of the most complex conditions of filming that you could have. We had a logistics manager who had done military service to take care of things and he was there two months before talking to ministries, taking care of the import of AK-47s in a war-ridden country, all of this. I wasn’t very involved in that. The set was pretty much protected, we did have to have convoys with armed staff to protect us to go through certain areas of the city.

Does the movie mean something different to you now than when you first started?

For me, it’s a breakthrough film not because of the object that it is, but for my inner barriers. The film I see is the film that my initial impulses told me the film should be and it’s the first time that this happened in all of my four films, so I’m very grateful for that. I feel that the inner barriers that I had before, the pressures of the industry, didn’t affect the what the film should be while filming. The difference between what seems like a good take or an authentic take while you’re on the set is…it’s strange, but it’s not as easy to differentiate with all that noise — it’s not as easy as it can seem to recognize when the scene is right. Sometimes you think it’s right, but it’s like 99% there and that 100 percent is about authenticity more than preciseness. It’s about being in the moment and I felt the actors were in the moment during the shooting.

Over the 10 year period, how did it evolve? [SPOILERS AHEAD ABOUT A MAJOR PLOT POINT]

Constantly. To be completely honest, this took ten years, but there were many scripts I developed in parallel and working for four, five, six , seven, 10 years on the script, there’s a very rewarding element to it because you’re facing your own fears as well as trying to tell a good story.

There was this thing where I kept trying to have the Magician survive and we see him die, but then he’s not really dead. He struggles and he’s alive, but he got amputated and it kept feeling phony. Greek tragedies are about life AND death, so it was almost like the baby was a reincarnation of the Magician. That was a big element to it and then the structure also was a big element like how do we convey this, how do we jump back in time? In the end, we were very linear, but we did film the script to be chronologically inversed and in the editing we saw that it was much better to just make it very linear.

“War Witch” is now open at the Angelika and Lincoln Plaza Cinemas in New York and is available on VOD, iTunes, Amazon on Demand and Vudu nationally. It will open on March 8th in Los Angeles and expand into limited release on March 15th. A full list of theaters can be found here.

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