An AK47 and a Fisher Price light saber. Two of the first things I saw in Kinshasa as we were comparing the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC ), Cameroon and Kenya as potential countries to film War Witch, a film I had been writing for almost ten years. There was this policeman with his machine gun strapped to his shoulder, waiving what looked like one of those light sticks they use to guide airplanes on the tarmac. But as our driver got closer, I realized it was a Fisher Price Star Wars Luke Skywalker Light Saber. Wow. I had a good feeling we were at the right place, at the right time.
The thing is, the more I direct films, the more I tend to believe we are all, as a team, living molecules oscillating within a bigger life form—the film—and that in its best moments, creativity becomes collective, that what we capture depends on everybody’s instincts and impulses. Of course, that implies that we have to let go of our individual egos, sometimes. Luckily, in the end, I get all the credit… (laughs).
The concept of collective acquiescence to the film became even clearer when we were in the DRC. The actors (often non-actors) were at their best when they weren’t constrained by script lines and were left with an important level of freedom to improvise their dialogue and movements. And in the end, it’s the freedom of expression that I look for. Life challenges the lines on paper, distorts them and the story they were meant to tell, until eventually you create (or allow to develop) a more powerful, idiosyncratic figure: Unbalanced yet completely true.
One of the best examples of this was when we discovered an abandoned Asian palace right in the middle of the Congolese jungle, raptured by trees and creepers. In the earlier 80’s, dictator Mobutu, of what was then Zaïre, was nearly pop icon famous, so recognized that one could imagine his face replacing Mao Zedong’s in Andy Warhol’s iconic painting. While he was visiting China, still rich from the exploitation of Zaïre’s mines, Mobutu discovered the Emperor’s Forbidden City and found it mesmerizing. So he brought about two hundred Chinese architects to the middle of the jungle and had them build him his own private Chinese Forbidden City—where he could throw parties and celebrations when delegates (mostly from Europe) came to visit.
You can guess where I’m going with this: I had to film in that location. And we did. When you watch the film and you see these abandoned Chinese buildings in the middle of the jungle, your reaction, like mine, is that this is completely irrational and doesn’t make sense. And that’s why it does make sense for an irrational story like the one we tell in War Witch. We couldn’t have imagined this. We had to discover it and let the unthinkable reality transform the script.
So, we found these amazing locations, we found this amazing kid living in the streets of Kinshasa—Rachel Mwanza, who went on to become the first African woman to ever win the Silver Bear for Best Actress at the Berlin Film Festival—and had logistics and security locked down thanks to our amazing logistics manager Sébastien Maître (who did his French military service in logistics). But four days before commencing principal photography, Pierre Magny, my first A.D., comes up to me and says:
Kim, not to worry, but there’s a problem.
Pierre: It’s gonna be okay, don’t worry.
Pierre: Rachel got Malaria. But don’t worry.
Kim: What the f***!?!? Don’t worry?!?! We’re starting filming in three days!!! (“Nobody comes close to Rachel’s talent, she’s irreplaceable,” I’m thinking)
Pierre: Yeah. Don’t worry. It’s normal around here. You get malaria every year or so. You rest and take a couple of pills and it’s over in about three or four days.
Luckily, he was right and Rachel was fine. More than fine. She blew the screen away. And then she traveled to Berlin and got a trophy from the hands of Jake Gyllenhal (she had no idea who he was by the way).*
*Note: Rachel, who was living on the streets when we met her, is now part of a custom-tailored, four-year reinsertion program where she is followed by a tutor, looked after by a caretaker, and has all her basic needs provided.