"War Witch", a Canadian film about a child soldier played by a girl who until recently lived on the streets of Kinshasa, broke out as a strong contender at the Berlin film festival Friday.
The last of 18 pictures in competition, "War Witch" by Kim Nguyen drew an enthusiastic reception ahead of a gala prize ceremony Saturday where the jury president, British director Mike Leigh, will present the Golden Bear top prize.
It tells the story of Komona, a 12-year-old girl in a country strongly resembling the Democratic Republic of Congo, who is snatched from her village by armed rebels, forced to gun down her parents and made her commander's mistress.
When the leader of the separatists, known as Great Tiger, comes to believe she has magical powers to say from which direction government troops will invade, she gains a protected status in the unit as its "witch".
Most of the soldiers are children like herself and get primed for battle watching DVDs of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies.
Komona befriends a 15-year-old Albino soldier nicknamed Magician, who falls in love with her. When he asks to marry her, she tells him he will have to present her with a white rooster -- a seemingly impossible task.
With a bit of help and luck, though, he captures the mystical creature in one of the film's lighter scenes and the two, barely out of childhood, embark on married life.
But their tender co-existence is soon shattered when the rebels return, provoking a tragedy which eventually gives way to a hopeful ending.
Nguyen, the son of Vietnamese immigrants to Canada, said he could strongly identify with Komona despite their backgrounds being worlds apart.
"A lot of times there's a saying that you should only talk about what you know," he told a news conference. "It took 10 years to convince people to allow me to make this movie."
Nguyen, whose cast was comprised of amateur actors from Canada and DR Congo, where the film was also shot, said he interviewed former child soldiers and aid workers to get the tone and the details right.
He said he wanted to make an uplifting film despite the grim material depicting one of the most protracted conflicts on the planet.
"I think it's about hope and resilience," he said. "There is poetry but it's a dark poetry."
His lead actress, Rachel Mwanza, told reporters that she had been one of Kinshasa's street children after bouncing from a life with her parents, then her grandmother and finally in a children's home where she suffered abuse.
She earned money selling nuts by the side of the road until Nguyen's team discovered her and said she learned to read while working on the film.
"I no longer have any family. The people you see here are my family now," she said, referring to the cast and crew of the film.
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