Child Soldiers in Africa

By Dillon, Mark | American Cinematographer, April 2013 | Go to article overview

Child Soldiers in Africa


Dillon, Mark, American Cinematographer


On the African child-soldier drama War Witch (Rebelle), writer/director Kim Nguyen and French-Canadian cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc, CSC took an improvisational approach to a harrowing subject, and the results have garnered international acclaim, including a Golden Frog for Bolduc at the 2012 Plus Camerimage festival and an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Feature.

War Witch marks the third collaboration between Bolduc and Nguyen, following Truffle (2008) and City of Shadows (2010). Based in Montreal, the pair met as 16-year-olds in high school, after which they attended film school together at Montreal's Concordia University. "Then our careers converged, and we started shooting together," says Bolduc. "It's fun shooting with someone you know so well and to whom you can say anything."

Bolduc says he approaches each project like a fresh canvas. "Every film has its own energy, purpose and way of exploring filmmaking. The story and the script have a mind of their own, and we try to follow it." He points to ASC members Gordon Willis, Anthony Dod Mantle and Roger Deakins as providing inspiration. "I love Willis' darkness; Deakins' work is the perfection of the frame that tells a story; and I love the way Dod Mantle creates beauty through chaos - he has done a lot with video that's crazy and experimental, and I admire that. I have these conversations with directors about always exploring and trying to put yourself in a bit of danger and trying something you've never tried. You don't know how far it's going to go or whether it will work, and that's very exciting. It's important to do that every time you make a film."

Bolduc and his collaborators put themselves in danger both artistically and physically on War Witch, which they shot over 32 days in and around Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fictitious drama follows Komona (Rachel Mwanza), a 12-year-old girl in an African village overcome by rebel soldiers. They force her to kill her mother (Starlette Mathata) and father (Alex Herabo), and then make her and other young villagers join their fight against government forces. When rebel leader Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga) learns of Komona's ability to see ghosts that warn of danger, he makes her his protected "war witch." Komona falls in love with a fellow soldier, Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), but is forced into a relationship with the Rebel Lieutenant (Alain Bastien), who impregnates her. The film's events are recounted by Komona to her as-yet-unborn child.

Nguyen started writing the script a decade ago and toured Africa in search of the ideal location. Congo was not the logical f rontrunner; the nation has no production infrastructure, and the film's story is set predominantly in the jungle, a setting that is easy to find throughout Africa. Congo does, however, have a reputation for gang violence, rape, murder and other crimes. But in its corner was a unique location near the town of Gbadolite: a jungle palace built in the style of China's Forbidden City by former dictator Mobutu Sese Seko. In the film, the large complex of pagodas serves as Great Tiger's headquarters. "That place was completely abandoned when we got there, and nobody had ever filmed there," says Nguyen. "You just couldn't find that anywhere else."

Bolduc says he had "a normal lowbudget crew" on the production; they included his frequent first assistant cameraman, Eric Benoussan, as well as 2nd AC Jessica Servieres, gaffer Gaétan St-Onge and a Senegalese grip team led by Lamine Cámara and Pape Sarr. A few Congolese also participated, recent school graduates who, says Bolduc, "wanted to learn about filmmaking and were eager to work with us." Some were employed as drivers, and police and the military would accompany them for protection. (Nguyen says the production never ventured more than 5 miles outside Kinshasa.) The most demanding visual effects were the substantial gunfire, supervised by French special-effects technician Sébastien Roussel and weapons coordinator Marc Leroyer. …

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