He's not sure why, but Montreal filmmaker Kim Nguyen says he identifies with the mind of a child soldier.
He readily acknowledges that no one comfortably living half a world away can fully know the horror and trauma experienced by children forced into war. But what drew him to write the script for Rebelle (War Witch), about a teenage girl abducted by Congolese rebels, was the chaos. The unreality and brutal survival, the madness and yet resilience. He found the voice of a child soldier almost immediately.
It began for Nguyen not in Africa, but by reading about Johnny and Luther Htoo, child soldiers in Burma. The twins, who made international news a decade ago with the strange images of long-haired Johnny and Luther chain-smoking cheroot cigarettes, led the God's Army guerrilla rebels at the age of 9.
"I don't know why, but when I read about Johnny Htoo, I started writing the inner voice right away. After doing a few months of research, it felt like just a river – the dialogue flowed," Nguyen said. "I just wrote and wrote. Oddly enough, I could identify with the character. I can't explain it, but I do feel that I relate to the emotions."
Rebelle, which is Canada's official selection for the Oscar race for best foreign-language film, has already shone at festivals. Its star Rachel Mwanza won for best actress in Berlin and again at the Tribeca Film Festival, where Rebelle also won best narrative feature.
The transition from Burmese child soldiers to an abducted Congolese girl came to Nguyen over a period of 10 years, as he broadened his research to wars from Angola to Sierra Leone. He blended the stories, placing the film simply in the Sub-Sahara, although production was centred in Kinshasa.
"If the emotions and the psyche are authentic, you hope that the rest is going to be true. Of course I transgressed a lot of truths. I betrayed some facts in the film. It's a fiction. I'm okay with that," Nguyen says. "I didn't want to stigmatize one specific country without knowing exactly the political context or making any accusations that would be blunt."
The key for Nguyen was to keep the filming spontaneous. The actors, many of whom were street kids from Kinshasa – including Mwanza – discussed general scenarios, but didn't rehearse the script. The actual dialogue was improvised. They worked with a French acting coach who has also worked with Marion Cotillard. But Nguyen wanted the actors' own mannerisms and the smallest details of African life to come through.
"With actors, with the pressures they are under, you need to find almost violent processes to break out of their reflexes. I definitely want to try to keep working without rehearsals. I don't do rehearsals before the first take. [It's] almost like putting the best take into the trash can. We organized everything when shooting this film to make the first take the best one."
That required the cinematographers to work without detailed cues. They were asked instead simply to follow the action. And this in turn matched the free-flowing nature of the script, Nguyen says. Mwanza's character is initially abducted by rebels from her impoverished African encampment. But the film shifts into magic realism with apparitions of the dead during scenes of jungle ambushes, then another shift brings scenes of grittier chaos in the rebel stronghold, and then glimpses of more domestic African life. Filming had to be agile enough to follow the shifts, one stylistic process leading another.
"I find scripts are better when not too constrained by a three-act narrative structure, where they correspond more to the idiosyncrasies of life. The moments that change the lives of people are not narratively justified," Nguyen says.
"We fight so hard to have narratively justifiable elements in our scripts. And of course these should be there. But I think at points – maybe that's where the magic realism comes in – you have to [allow] things to come in that are not narratively justifiable and have a deep impact on your life."