Two Foreign Films – “No” and “War Witch” – Tackle Complex Subjects Simply

It has been a while since my last film review (although I have posted other things). I am back with two more, and hope that my semester of hard work and health problems will not continue to get in the way of my writing. We shall see . . .


No (Pablo Larraín, 2012)

Back when Linda DeLibero and I did our pre-Oscar Midday with Dan Rodricks show, I had yet to see Pablo Larraín’s No, one of the Best Foreign Film nominees, since it hadn’t been released in Baltimore. I just watched it last night, and loved it. It was nice to see Gael García Bernal in a good movie again. Though I have admired him as an actor since Amores Perros, I hadn’t found any of the films he was in since The Motorcycle Diaries to be  that spectacular. With No, however, his usual fine performance is showcased in an equally fine film.

No tells the story of René Saveedra, a Chilean advertising executive recently returned from exile in Argentina, who finds himself drafted by the anti-Pinochet opposition to spearhead their ad campaign in the 1988 YES/NO referendum. At that time, in Chile, the government of the military dictator Augusto Pinochet had found itself under increasing international pressure to democratize the country, and so had offered the Chilean people a chance to vote in a plebiscite for Pinochet to remain in power (YES) or against his remaining in power (NO). While his rule was brutal, conditions in the country had improved for some since the coup that brought him to office in 1973. Not everyone hated him. But even those who did hate Pinochet were scared. All indications were that the YES camp would win.

A funny thing happened on the way to the election, however, which is that the disparate forces of the opposition came together around a smart ad campaign. Allowed 15 minutes of TV time every night, each side tried hard to appeal to the Chilean populace. What the NO camp did was remarkable. With humor and optimism (and smart commercial instincts), they created a series of ad spots that inspired over 50% of Chileans to vote NO. Although the Pinochet government tried to fudge the results, there were too many international observers, and the military leaders of the country abandoned Pinochet, forcing him to recognize his loss.

This really happened. And that is what No is about. It’s a compelling story, brilliantly told and acted.

One of the director’s most interesting choices was to film the entire movie using video cameras from the 1980s, so that the look of the movie matches the period in which it takes place. Those folks who want their current cinema to be in high def, 2K, 4K, or beyond, will be disappointed. But if you give the movie a chance, within 5 minutes you’ll forget all about any potential image distraction, and may even enjoy the look. I know I did. After all, nothing counts more than story. For more on the shooting technique, check out the production notes in the press kit.

One of the director’s most controversial choices was to invent the main character of René Saveedra. Many of his fellows Chileans were not happy. Why create a fictional character when the actual story is powerful enough? Why distort history? Good question. I suppose Larraín found it more narratively coherent to do it this way. As a non-Chilean, all I can say is that Larraín effectively tells his tale. I sympathize with those who dislike what they deem unnecessary liberties with the truth, but I also sympathize with artists who struggle to remain true to the overall story with as simple a through-line as possible. Sometimes narrative simplicity is the best way to tell the history of an event of great complexity. What do you think?

Regardless, for this viewer, the movie worked. In spite of its negative title, No is a positive contribution to recent filmmaking.

War Witch

War Witch (Kim Nguyen, 2012)

On Sunday, February 10, I presented this film at Cinema Sundays at the Charles. I’m not sure if it ever actually played at the Charles. If it did, it disappeared quickly. And although I found it powerful, and although it was also a Best Foreign Film nominee, I can understand why folks might not want to sit though it. This is a brutal movie. Kids with guns, killing just about anything that move – including their own parents – do not make for happy viewing.

Still, I recommend the movie. War Witch tells the story of war-torn central Africa, where warlords force local children into their armies, brutalizing them so they can brutalize others. It focuses its narrative on one such child, Komona, thereby giving us a relatable character in the midst of the madness. Played by newcomer Rachel Mwanza, Komona suffers for the sins of others, finds a way to survive, and finds redemption in a way that offers hope for the future.

The film is violent, but the director, Canadian Kim Nguyen, show great restraint in his depictions of brutality. The most horrific acts happen off screen. Of greater challenge for most viewers, most likely, is Nguyen’s elliptical narrative technique, which will frustrate those looking for clear plot points. In the middle of war, however, confusion reigns. Still, Nguyen adheres to a traditional three-act structure, and by the end of the film most of the narrative threads are tied up. Stick with it, and War Witch offers worthy rewards.

And now I offer the outline I made for my February 10 presentation. Enjoy!

I. Opening

1 of 5 Best Foreign Film Academy Award nominees for 2012, along with:

II.   Crew

A.  Kim Nguyen (1974 – ) = Director

  1. Born and raised in Amqui, Quebec to a Vietnamese father and a Québécois mother
  2. Other films include:
  • a.   City of Shadows (La cité) (2010) – shot in Tunisia (on 35mm film) w/ Jean-Marc Barr: ” A doctor broken by 8 years of war in North Africa tries to come back home. On his way, he is faced with a bigger challenge: save a city from the plague … and from madness.”
  • b.   Truffe (2008): ” Chaos ensues after global warming transforms a working-class Montreal neighborhood into a world Mecca for truffles.”
  • c.   The Marsh (Le Marais) (2002): ” Two social outcasts in 19th century Eastern Europe, Alexandre and Ulysse, become friends and settle down to live alone on the edge of a marsh that is reputedly haunted by demons, monsters and goblins.”

B.  Nicolas Bolduc (1973 – ) = Cinematographer

  1. Other films include:
  • a.   City of Shadows
  • b.   Truffe
  • c.   Lots of Canadian (French Canadian) stuff we hven’t heard of

III.   Final Opening Comments

A.   Film is hard to watch – the story is brutal and the performances are raw

  1. Extremely violent story – but we can grateful to the director for showing restraint in terms of what he actually shows us.
  2. Based on news reports that have reached us over the years from the DRC and other African countries, what actually happens is probably worse than what is depicted here.

B.  The two lead child actors – Rachel Mwanza and Serge Kanyinda – along with many of the other performers – are all non-professionals.

C.  Awards:

  1. Berlin – Special Jury Mention for Director (nominated for Golden Bear) & Silver Berlin Bear for Best Actress (she was given award by Jake Gyllenhall, but didn’t know who he was – just thought he was cute) []
  2. Tribeca Film Festival – Best Narrative Film and Best Actress

D.  Story of the making of the film almost as interesting as the story in the film (making-of film would be fascinating – wait for DVD/Blu-Ray release). I’ll share a few stories from the production after the screening.

  1. Film shot in and around Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo, a former Belgian colony.
  2. Nguyen: “The decision to film in this country was also imposed by Rachel, a girl from the streets whom we discovered, and who has a raw natural talent as an actress. It was an exceptional encounter.” [from press kit]
  3. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo ]sometimes referred to as DR Congo, Congo-Kinshasa or the DRC, is a country located in central Africa. It is the second largest country in Africa by area and the eleventh largest in the world. With a population of over 71 million, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is the nineteenth most populous nation in the world, the fourth most populous nation in Africa, as well as the most populous officially Francophone country.” [from Wikipedia]
  4. It borders the Central African Republic and South Sudan to the north; Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi in the east; Zambia and Angola to the south; the Republic of the Congo, the Angolan exclave of Cabinda, and the Atlantic Ocean to the west; and is separated from Tanzania by Lake Tanganyika in the east. The country has access to the ocean through a 40-kilometre (25 mi) stretch of Atlantic coastline at Muanda and the roughly 9 km wide mouth of the Congo River which opens into the Gulf of Guinea. It has the second-highest total Christian population in Africa.” [from Wikipedia]
  5. The Second Congo War, beginning in 1998, devastated the country and is sometimes referred to as the “African world war” because it involved nine African nations and some twenty armed groups.[4] Despite the signing of peace accords in 2003, fighting continues in the east of the country. There, the prevalence of rape and other sexual violence is described as the worst in the world. The war is the world’s deadliest conflict since World War II, killing 5.4 million people since 1998. The vast majority died from conditions of malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia and malnutrition.”  [from Wikipedia]
  6. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo was formerly, in chronological order, the Congo Free State, Belgian Congo, Congo-Léopoldville, Congo-Kinshasa, and Zaire.”  [from Wikipedia]

IV.  Main Actors

A.   Rachel Mwanza = Komona. She is only 16 as of January, 2013 [from Vancouver Sun]

B.  Serge Kanyinda = Magicien

C.  Mizinga Mwinga = Le Grand Tigre (he is from Québéc, via Zambia to London) [from imdb and Le Journal de Montréal]

V. Post-Screening Film Notes

A.   If you want to know more about the film, go to

B.  Shot on an Arri Alexa. From the DP: ” When I was prepping La cité with Kim in 2008, we flirted with the idea of shooting it digital. In Tunisia, shooting in the desertwith the dust-filled air, the washed out skies, and knowing that we were going to shoot with a lot of available light, including torches, well, there just was no compromise. Nothing could beat 35 mm. For Rebelle, we were going in a similar direction, lots of handheld with tons of natural light, but it was a more realistic tale that had to feel almost like a documentary. On top of that, there were some night scenes, and I didn’t want any of that classic “moon lighting” or any lighting, for that matter, that could feel artificial. So I didn’t even try to avoid digital, and just thinking of getting film in and out of the Congo was a logistical nightmare!” [from Canadian Society of Cinematographers DoP Notes]

C.  Nguyen: “I wanted this film to break away from my former films, and to shoot scenes as if there had never been a before; nor was there to be an after. As though only the present moment was real. My actors were not allowed to read the screenplay before the shoot, and we shot the film in sequence. In this way, the actors never knew what was going to happen to their characters the next day…” [from press kit]

D.  He wanted to make a story showing sub-Saharan Africa – a love story in time of war.

E.  After making the decision to shoot much of his film in Lingala, the native language of the Congolese, Nguyen then had to teach his Canadian actors – such as the one playing “Le grand tigre,” how to speak it. [from Le Journal de Montréal]

F.   From the DP: ” There is no “culture” as we know it in Kinshasa. No theatre, no cinemas, no museums. But there are thousands of artists waiting to be pushed in the right direction. They don’t have the means to create, but the raw talent is quite remarkable. The kids Kim cast for the film lived on the streets. They had no parents  and no education. They couldn’t even read or write, but their energy was astounding                         and genuine. Since they couldn’t read the script, the dialogue was improvised, and given that they weren’t trained actors, we shot the film in continuity to give them a sense of the complete story. Page one was day one of principal photography, and Kim took it one day at a time, feeding them information gradually. They were living the film as we went through the pages, and so was I. I woke up every morning                     without knowing what was to come, or how to shoot it. How rare is that in this business?”[from Canadian Society of Cinematographers DoP Notes]

G.  From the DP: ” Films are not shot in Kinshasa, or anywhere in the Congo, for that matter. The reasons are of course political, and that is why hundreds of United Nations trucks patrol the city. The armed rebels are outside the city, thank God, but when the sun sets in Kinshasa, it’s to each his own. The under-lit streets are very dangerous and no one goes out at night without a chauffeur, locked inside an SUV.                       Gangs of kids – the chégué – are hidden in shadows. These are just street kids with no families, trying to make a dollar. They have no guns because they’re too expensive, but knives and machetes are common.” [from Canadian Society of Cinematographers DoP Notes]

H. From the DP: “In the script, there were a lot of night scenes, but they were almost all changed to day scenes because of the dangers of shooting night. We needed more guards and more police protection, but because of the corruption we couldn’t even trust the police.” [from Canadian Society of Cinematographers DoP Notes]

I.  From the DP: ” One scene in the film that I’m quite fond of is the rebel camp  scene at night. We were shooting at an old palace that Mobutu Sese Seko – the crazy dictator that ruled the country for more than 30 years – had built in the 1980s. The palace was inspired by a visit he made to China where he had been so fascinated by the Imperial Palace that he flew in 200 Chinese architects and painters and built  a Chinese palace with a view on the Congo River. The insane buildings and ponds – where he would throw unwanted guests in the basin with the crocodiles – were now an abandoned concrete ruin, inhabited by thousands of bats. Our rebel camp, set in the old crocodile basin, was the biggest set of the film.” [from Canadian Society of Cinematographers DoP Notes]

J.    From the DP: “Even accompanied by a security officer, the stories I had heard of corruption, violence and war obviously came to mind as we walked through the dark open-air parking. We drove for more than an hour toward the city on a six-lane boulevard with no street lamps, in a black cloud of dust and burning diesel. In the smog the slow traffic was lit only by the car headlights, and there were thousands of people everywhere. Some children were selling the traditional plastic bags of water to motorists. Others sold car carpets, cloths, toys or anything they could find to make a dollar. It seemed like a hell of a mess. The chauffeur leaned over and locked my door as I was texting my girlfriend about what I saw. The light of the phone in the dark could be seen from far away, he said. A minute later, a kid                         appeared from nowhere and fiddled at the door latch to go for the phone.” [from Canadian Society of Cinematographers DoP Notes]

K. Kim Nguyen on albinism and other parts of the film: Filmmaker Magazine.

L. Coltan

M. Albinism

N. Varieties of Albinism

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.