Once again a Québécois film has been nominated for a best foreign-language Oscar. In 2011, it was Denis Villenuve’s Incendies and in 2012 it was Philippe Falardeau’s Monsieur Lazhar. This year, the honour goes to Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (War Witch is the English title).
In War Witch, a 12-year-old girl named Komona (Rachel Mwanza) is kidnapped by rebels in an un-named African country and forced to become a child soldier. But she soon discovers that she has magical powers – she can see ghosts in the jungle and knows when government forces lie in wait. War Witch covers two years of Komona’s life told in flashback and voiceover, an odyssey that veers into slaughter, witchcraft and magical realism. It’s a harrowing story told with a great deal of humanity and strikingly authentic performances, especially by Mwanza, an untrained street kid who was found on location in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of Congo. In addition to the film’s Oscar nod, Mwanza won the Silver Bear for best actress at the Berlin International Film Festival and best actress at the Tribeca Film Festival. War Witch received 12 newly minted Canadian Screen Awards nominations (formerly the Genies), including best picture, best director, best screenplay and best actress for Mwanza.
It has been duly noted by those who pay attention to such matters that this is the third year in a row that a Québécois film has been honoured with an Oscar nomination. What does this say about English-Canadian cinema? Well, nothing really. English-Canadian cinema is doing just fine, thank you, but obviously will never qualify for the foreign-language category. The fact that Quebec has been honoured thrice by the Academy, however, speaks volumes for the depth and breadth of cinematic talent in la belle province. Prior to 2011, the first and only Canadian filmmaker to be nominated was the great Denys Arcand, winning as he did in 2004 for The Barbarian Invasions. That was his third shot at the prize; previously The Decline of the American Empire and Jesus of Montreal had been nominated.
Kim Nguyen might be a new name in English-Canada, but War Witch is his fourth feature, and he has been in the business since 2000. His first feature, The Marsh (Le Marais), released in 2003, is an odd little film about two social outcasts in 19th century Eastern Europe who become friends and settle down to live alone on the edge of a marsh that is reputedly haunted. Despite its short stay on one screen in downtown Toronto for one week, it did catch the eye of Toronto Sun’s Bruce Kirkland who called it “a near visual masterpiece on a modest budget.”
This was followed by Truffle in 2008, which went straight to DVD, and La Cité in 2010, an ambitious movie filmed in North Africa and set in the late 19th century. It concerns a French doctor who has spent too many years as a battlefield surgeon and longs to go home. Instead, he remains trapped in a city where the populace is dying of a mysterious plague.
Denis Villeneuve has four features to his credit, as does Philippe Falardeau. The three of them – Nguyen, Villeneuve and Falardeau – are the direct descendants of Claude Jutra. It’s been over 40 years since the release of Jutra’s Mon oncle Antoine – forty years of quality cinema from Quebec. As one senior bureaucrat, with a great deal of knowledge of the Canadian film industry, put it, “if all of Canada spoke French, our cinema would be held in much higher esteem in Hollywood.”
As for War Witch‘s chances at the Oscars, despite being a wonderful film, its chances are fairly slim. It is unfortunately up against Amour, the favourite from Austria, which is also nominated for best picture, director and screenplay. The film’s director Michael Haneke is considered to be a masterful filmmaker on par with the greats like Bergman and Truffaut, and the time has certainly come for the Academy recognize his contribution to world cinema. Still, if War Witch‘s nomination directs more attention to French-Canadian cinema, it will have been a great success.