If the Academy Awards were like some Olympic events and took degree of difficulty into account, Kim Nguyen's "War Witch," one of the five nominees for the Oscar for best foreign language film, would surely be awarded extra points.
A decade in the making, "War Witch," which represents Canada, was researched and filmed in some of the most troubled parts of Africa and addresses one of that continent's most heartbreaking problems: the violent conscription of child soldiers.
"War Witch," which opens March 1, is essentially the story of the hardships endured by the 12-year-old Komona, played by Rachel Mwanza.
After being kidnapped by rebel soldiers - the original French-language title of the movie is "Rebelle" - she is enslaved and sexually exploited by her captors, her destiny changing only after they come to believe that she has magical powers.
Nguyen, 38, is a native of Montreal who studied film there; his father was a Vietnamese economist who immigrated to Quebec in the early 1960s.
"War Witch" is Nguyen's fourth feature and the first to earn an Oscar nomination. It also won best narrative feature last year at the Tribeca Film Festival. In Los Angeles for Oscar-related events, he spoke by telephone recently about the unusual challenges he faced in making "War Witch." Here are edited excerpts from that conversation:
Q: Your film has an interesting mix of professional and nonprofessional actors, with your title character and her love interest both in the nonprofessional category. How did you find Rachel Mwanza?
A: We did an open casting in Kinshasa. We had the hunch that kids from the streets could be very powerful. There was this Belgian documentary made before our film, and the people who did that kept telling us about this girl, Rachel Mwanza, who had real natural talent. So we did find amazing actors, but we also relied on that suggestion, and when we saw her, she was just mesmerizing. She had this natural instinct for acting, which I guess was nourished by her difficult past.
Q: What did that encompass?
A: At 5 or 6 years old, she was abandoned by her parents. She lived with her grandmother for a while, but then her grandmother told Rachel, "Well, I can't provide for you, you'll have a better chance of surviving if you go on the streets." So that's what she did, and when she found us, she was living on the streets of Kinshasa.
Q: It's always said that it's hard to direct children.Did she have difficulty in adapting to the discipline required to make a film?
A: Yeah, she did. Everything about structure was a challenge for Rachel. It was a struggle, but mostly it was the biggest blessing ever. These kids, they weren't jaded by auditions and people telling them they should be prettier, "you should get Botox," whatever. They were just free.
You know, often when you are working with professional actors, one of the hardest things to do is just get them to find their true being that reflects the character they are playing. In Rachel's case, who she is in real life permeates through the character she is interpreting.
Q: You shot in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the country you show is a generic sub-Saharan African country in turmoil. Why did you do it that way?
A: Because the film is a fiction. It's not Congo's reality, it's a construction of several different realities. Most of the things you see in the film are things I have read about, that are slightly twisted but are true in their principles. But since I transformed so many of these things, I couldn't give a name to the place where I was filming. It wouldn't have been responsible to do so.
Q: Congo is often regarded as the quintessential failed state. What was it like making a movie in that environment?
A: Really, it was a logistics nightmare and really, really tough on my crew. We had a logistics manager who had done military service in France. The movie really couldn't have existed without him. It wasn't just security issues, going from one place to the other, having protective guards to go to certain places. It was all really very complex.
Q: We're talking the day after the Oscar nominees luncheon. Can I get your impressions of that event?
A: It's almost not real to be there with all these amazing people that you respect, like Steven Spielberg. I was sitting next to Michael Mann, and Kathryn Bigelow was at the next table and she said to me, "Oh, you're the one who directed 'War Witch.' I have to see that film, I've heard a lot of good things about it." And shaking hands with Robert DeNiro! You come out of the nominees' luncheon, and it's like, "Wow, what just happened?" It does feel weird.
Q: What's your philosophy of dealing with the whole Oscar whirl and process?
A: One of my colleagues in Paris told me, "Kim, you know that most likely this only happens once in your life, that you're a nominee in the foreign-language category." The conjunction that your country decides that your film should be it, that you get into A-list film festivals, that you get onto the list of 71 and then the short list and then a nomination. That all these things align themselves is so rare. He said, "You might make a better film, but for you to end up on that list, it is really, really rare that it happens." So I'm just enjoying it and am really proud to be part of this team.