Writer-director Kim Nguyen’s deeply affecting drama War Witch spent most of last year on the film fest circuit, soaking up awards like Best Narrative Feature and Best Actress at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival. After being nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at this year’s Oscars, it was little surprise to see the fast-rising underdog sweep 10 out of the 12 categories at last month’s Canadian Screen Awards. Boasting beautiful cinematography and patient artistry—and, most importantly, just the right texture—Nguyen’s flick doesn’t merely tell the tale of 12-year-old Komona, an African girl forced into becoming a child soldier. It envelops the audience in an entire world, playing out like a horror film set in paradise. Alibi was lucky enough to speak with the French-Canadian filmmaker prior to the film’s New Mexico premiere.
There was an interview in which you said you had done research into the way British director Andrea Arnold had shot her award-winning coming-of-age drama Fish Tank. What did you learn and incorporate from your study of her working methods?
Basically, in regards to Andrea Arnold’s process, it’s just those two principles of filming the film in continuity and of not revealing the script to the actors beforehand. In rehearsal we did invent scenes that were similar to what was in the script, but they weren’t the actual scenes that were in the film. So that allowed for more spontaneity, and also it gave the actors tools so that they didn’t have to fake anticipation. They just didn’t really know what was going to happen. They had a hunch about it because we prepared them for the story and the tough scenes that were in the film, but they really didn’t know exactly what was going to happen. I believe it’s also how [John] Cassavetes worked, in many ways.
It may surprise some viewers that you were able to shoot in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What difficulties did you encounter with filming in such a chaotic country?
We had a lot of challenges in the Congo, but they became kind of blessings in disguise. For anyone who likes adventure, this has been a truly amazing adventure. The challenges that were there nourished the narrative. You’re just trying to film what’s there. You’re not focusing on storyboards or shot lists, you’re just trying to be authentic and capture authenticity. And I find that to be the best way to make films.
Given that you’re a French-Canadian male, it’s amazing how seamlessly and believably you were able to lens the story of an African girl-turned-child soldier. What in your personal background do you feel might have helped you to shoot without condescension or preconceived notions?
About the condescension or preconceived notions, well, thank you for that. I tried not to have a judgment of what is good and who is bad beforehand. I just related what I saw there in regards to what the humans go through, who they are, what they do. The most important thing was to make it nonjudgmental and let people decide for themselves.
Finally, it seems Canada has been trumping the U.S. when it comes to producing a large amount of truly artistic films. Has it been easier to get financing in recent years despite global economic woes?
We are in a good place right now in Canada, in regards to financing. There’s this kind of balance between box-office potential and creative merit. It’s never easy to finance a film. The biggest challenge is to develop those good scripts. I’d guess it’s a challenge all around the world, and it’s one of our biggest.