TIFF 2012 Review: Rebelle
Some kids stay a child forever, while others grow up fast. Others still, lose their childhood and innocence before they have any idea of what being young means. Abducted by a group of violent rebel soldiers, forced to execute her own parents, and discovering she can see ghosts, Komona is in a fourth group all together, completely removed from her own life, trying to get back some of her innocence.
Komona is a war witch, the English-translation the film’s Dutch title, Rebelle. Her gentle voice, filled with measured words and a lifetime of experiences, begins the story, as she talks to her unborn child and tells of her creation, her fears, and her hopes.
Set somewhere in Africa, where jungles are dense, villages are poor, and there exists no law, the film is instantly jarring, never letting you take a breath or look away. Within moments she is taken by a rebel group, given a gun, and placed alongside other children who are taught to worship a killing weapon as it were a mother and father—convenient for the rebels, as in the case of Komona, her real parents have been eliminated.
Marched through a jungle with little food and water, Komona is saved, as it were, upon the discovery that she can see the dead. Lifeless bodies, painted in the whitest of white, greet her amid the violence that constantly erupts, adding more torment to her existence, but making her of value to the rebel leader Great Tiger. If she can see can see twhat others can’t, she can warn the rebels of danger and better prepare them to fight.
The second act provides a bit of a lighter interlude, as she befriends a boy soldier named Magicien, and together the two seek to escape and find solace. This is all relative of course. The pair fight alongside each other, and no matter how often, it is never comfortable to see either of the teenagers brandishing weapons. When the violence subsides for part of the film, a charming courtship develops, and you almost forget—almost—the unbearably cruel world around them as they for once go through a universal human experience that does not discriminate based on age, race, or environment: falling in love.
The cuteness can only last for so long, as every step towards in the direction of partnership and care only magnifies their plight. She is haunted by the ghosts of her parents and thoughts of her unborn child, a soul that should not be entering into this world so soon, and one that she hopes is far more like her than the father.
There is no escape from the chaos in the world in which they live; they only hope for a brief respite. Eerie and uncomfortable throughout, made so by understated music and plenty of close-ups and frenetic shots, the tension is palpable and Rachel Mwanza’s performance as the war witch is captivating and heartbreaking.
Across two years Komona tells her story, one filled with death and heartbreak, and a desperate attempt to live having been deprived of family, friends, and innocence. She narrates, and so the audience knows she survives for at least some time through the film, but with such a horrible beginning to her story, can there be a happy ending? You only want her to find comfort with her life in any way she can, and have just a few moments of a normal childhood.