Berlinale Dispatch #7: Rebelle, Gnade

FILM, Film Festivals
Jungle and ice at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival.

I know what I want from a film: something realistic enough to make me believe it, but different enough from reality as I know it to take me somewhere new. It could be the subject matter; it could be the way it’s shown onscreen.

Kim Nguyen’s Rebelle (War Witch), one of the films in competition at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, managed it perfectly.

The subject matter could easily have been too horrific to watch. Somewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, rebels capture 12-year-old Komona, destroy her village, force her to kill her parents—and then to fight as part of the rebel army. Later, she is ordered to sleep with her unit’s commander.

Komona, haunted by the ghosts of her parents, slowly draws closer to white-haired boy soldier Magician. The two children escape together and find brief solace, even happiness, before the past and the rebels catch up.

The world of Rebelle, shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo with an almost entirely local cast, is all too believable. Lead actress Rachel Mwanza herself grew up without parents and spent time living on the streets of Kinchasa.

Yet Nguyen’s handling means the film ends on a note of hope and resilience rather than horror. The soundtrack is excellent (album name Angolan Music 72-74). Careful camerawork and the use of ghosts (actors in white body paint) shield us from the full reality of the world onscreen. What we do see is shocking enough.

The ghosts have another purpose. Nguyen wanted to show the indoctrination of child soldiers. “You don’t see dead bodies bleeding on the ground. You’re numbed by the drugs and the indoctrination; the power of owning a gun gives you adrenalin rushes that make you forget about the violence,” he told journalists.

“The only way to show that, for me, was not to be objective, to create images like the ghosts… In my mind, for the child soldiers, it looks more like that.”

Gnade (Mercy) sticks more to the rules of realism than Rebelle, at least when it comes to the supernatural, but I found it harder to engage with.

German director Matthias Glasner’s latest is a family drama set 1000 kilometres north of the Arctic Circle. Couple-on-the-rocks Nils (Jürgen Vogel) and Maria (Birgit Minichmayr) move to the small town of Hammerfest with their young son Markus (Henry Stange).

Nils, an engineer, soon begins an affair—not his first. Maria finds work caring for the terminally ill at the local hospice. Driving home late, she hits something in the dark. She pauses, panicked, and keeps driving. When it emerges that a local girl has been killed in a hit-and-run, Maria and Nils decide to keep what must have happened quiet. As the weeks go by and the long polar night lightens, they begin to rekindle their relationship.

Especially after Rebelle, I found it hard to sympathise with the plight of the leads. The solution to their guilt is obvious: come clean. That, though, is the point. There are no heroes in this family and Gnade raises provocative questions about the links between guilt, forgiveness, and self-interest.

I could have done without son Markus’s home filmmaking, a device that was distracting at times, but the acting and family dynamic were compelling. If nothing else, everyday life in the Arctic, masterfully shot, was well worth the big screen visit.

Nina Fowler represented The Lumière Reader at the 62nd Berlin International Film Festival, which ran from February 9-19.