Hannah Arendt coined "banality of evil" while watching Nazis on trial, and Canadian writer/director Kim Nguyen's War Witch inspires a similar phrase: the abruptness of atrocity. In War Witch a kid playing with a wooden beam one moment might be forced to kill her parents the next. For Komona (Rachel Mwanza), the film's resourceful adolescent heroine, horror comes and goes as it pleases. Forced to become a child soldier in a war against the government of her unspecified African country, Komona receives a ghostly vision enabling her to survive an ambush—which suggests to the rebels that she is a "war witch." That's only the beginning of her arduous journey toward adulthood, which will crucially turn on a romance with another child soldier (Serge Kanyinda). Refreshingly evenhanded, War Witch is anything but an overwrought depiction of atrocities in the third world. In its finest moments the film's pared-down style recalls Terrence Malick's, with its casual acceptance of events as they occur and mindful connection to the present moment. In other hands this could easily have been an all-too-dramatic affair, with atrocities coming across as too extreme to feel real. Instead Nguyen's matter-of-fact storytelling proves to be the right match for a life of extraordinary suffering. In art, lives like Komona's are all too often given an alien sheen. Here, they feel unnervingly plausible.
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