Saturday, February 23, 2013


A Call to Adventure                                  
by Mark Dispenza

Norway's official Oscar entry is a true-life celebration of human ingenuity and a call to adventure.

Kon-Tiki is a sure crowd-pleaser with its Hollywood-style period production values, the beauty of its ocean cinematography and its depiction of a world of possibility and challenge that seems to elude us today.

Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen stars as Thor Heyerdahl, a Norwegian zoology and geography specialist who spent a number of years studying the islands of Polynesia and its inhabitants.  He arrived at the National Geographic Society in New York City following the second world war, seeking funds for an expedition to prove a theory that defied conventional wisdom.  

Pål Sverre Valheim Hagen

Heyerdahl believed that Polynesia was settled not from Asia, which was widely accepted at the time, but from Peru.  He proposed to build a raft using the Peruvian balsa wood technology of the time and sail it across the Pacific to the island of Raroia.  

It's important to realize that knowledge of Pacific Ocean currents seemed to disprove Heyerdahl's theory outright.  Coupled with the fact that he did not take to water easily and had little to no knowledge of boats, the idea that he could carry out and survive such a journey was highly unlikely at best.  I hate to admit it, but I would have been one of the financiers who initially wrote Heyerdahl off as a nutcase.

But like many of the explorers who push the boundaries of human knowledge, he was unflappable and determined.  He assembled a small group of friends and experts who might presumably make up for his weaknesses in ocean navigation, and they set off on their adventure with the whole world monitoring their progress by radio.  In August 1947 they arrived at their destination, and our assumptions about the world were challenged once again.  

Joachim Ronning and Espen Sandberg are the Norwegian directing team best known internationally for the Penelope CruzSalma Hayek vehicle, Bandidas.  The script is by Petter Skavlan, who until now was known as a writer of documentaries, which makes Kon-Tiki a natural entry point for him into the world of feature film scripting.

Kon-Tiki makes for a fun time at the movies and a reminder of the magic of fearless forays into unknown worlds of possibility. It's a reminder we're sorely in need of today.

Friday, February 15, 2013

War Witch

A Childhood in Hell                           
by Mark Dispenza

The tragic story of sub-Saharan Africa's child soldiers is brought to life in War Witch.

Canadian Kim Nguyen wrote and directed War Witch and shot it on location in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, only the second feature film in history to be made there.  He recruited a local, Rachel Mwanza, as his lead actress.

The story opens as 14-year-old Komona, played by Mwanza, tells her unborn child the story of how she became a child soldier two years before.  Rebel fighters showed up in her village one day, murdered its inhabitants, and forced Komona to kill her own parents. The young children were spared as new recruits in the rebel army.  In order to survive, Komona must set aside her grief and accept the military training forced upon her by the rebels.  What follows is a life of fear and bloodshed, and Komona begins to realize that if she remains there, her days are numbered.

Rachel Mwanza

She develops an ability to communicate with the ghosts of the dead, who warn her of impending danger.  Armed with that information, she is able to detect the presence of government soldiers and avoid ambush.  Her ability quickly brings her to the attention of Great Tiger (Mizinga Mwinga), the rebels' supreme commander.  He promotes her to the position of his official "war witch," a dubious honor, as he killed the previous three young women to occupy that role.

She becomes friends with an older boy called Magician, who protects her from the cruelty of her commanders and becomes her closest confidante.  After a particularly brutal encounter with the military, he convinces her to run away with him.  Their rebel "family" is not keen on letting them go and become determined pursuers.

Through the eyes of Komona, Nguyen brings to life the tragic story of Africa's child soldiers.  Forcibly recruited at very young ages, they suffer a loss of innocence and live a traumatizing life of fear and brutality, forced to perpetrate atrocities on others for their own survival.

Like Beasts of the Southern Wild, another film that interprets stark reality through the lens of magical realism, War Witch stars a young local without prior acting experience.  Mwanza won Best Actress at the Berlin International Film Festival and is now well-positioned for a bright career.  She has said that she used her own personal tragedy and abandonment by her parents to inform her interpretation of Komona, and she does so to good effect.

War Witch is more than a story of lost childhood and the tragedy of war.  It's about love and the human capacity for hope and survival even in the most horrific of circumstances.  Its powerful message underlies Canada's choice to submit the film as its official submission to the Oscars in the category of best foreign language film, where it is now among the five finalists for that honor.

War Witch begins a limited theatrical run in the USA on March 8 in Southern California.