TORONTO—In 2000, the haunting image of two boys leading a Burmese guerrilla group known as “God’s Army” went viral. A Newsweek cover featured the Htoo twins, one of whom appeared to be balding fast, smoking a cigar, and leering at the camera like he was ordering an execution, while the other seemed to be watching the scene unfold with sad resignation. Most North Americans quickly forgot Luther and Johnny and moved on to the next surreal atrocity.
But Kim Nguyen, the Montreal-based writer-director of Rebelle—Canada’s foreign-language Oscar entry for 2012—couldn’t shake the image. Speaking to the Georgia Straight in a Toronto hotel room just before his film’s premiere at the 2012 Toronto International Film Festival, Nguyen explained: “I read an article on Johnny, who was a nine-year-old soldier in Burma, who had a twin brother who was smoking cigars every day and who woke up one day and, I’m paraphrasing, but he said: ‘Follow my teachings, and we will win against the soldiers from the government.’ And he became this deity for these soldiers—he became a mixture of reality and myth. And for many years, he was part of this army, and he was this godlike character.
“It’s like a Greek tragedy in our modern times,” Nguyen said. “And just very egotistically, I felt that it was something very compelling to put on the screen, to address those issues. It’s almost Kubrickian, when you think about it.”
Nguyen’s initial impulse was to dramatize the story of the Htoo twins. “Then I thought, no, it should be something more; it relates to that, but it isn’t that.”
Nguyen kept researching the phenomenon of child soldiers, and as he learned more about the situation in sub-Saharan Africa, he became fascinated and horrified by stories of young girls who were drafted to kill. “That added another layer of complexity, of paradox to the theme. I wanted to give a voice to this woman-child soldier.”
He said he knew early on that whatever he wrote wasn’t going to be another story about a white man or woman arriving in Africa to be transformed by what he or she saw and/or saving at least part of the day. “I had seen a lot of films of sub-Saharan Africa where the actual victim-hero is a North American guy trying to save sub-Saharan Africa. There have been many of those. I thought, in all fairness, we owe it to these people to give a voice to the people there.”
Nguyen said writing the film wasn’t saddening, but that stopping to think about the subject matter was distressing. “What’s depressing is to know that…[a lot of these things] happen for real—that’s what’s really depressing, and it changes you, I guess. The actual things that happen: we’ve read about all these elements in Greek tragedy. In Greek tragedy, there’s this brother feeding his brother’s child to him as a vengeance. There’s nothing more horrible than that, so I guess when you’re writing stories, you keep working with these horrible, archaic, and hyperbolic things. It’s when you stop writing the story and realize these things happen in real life, that’s when it’s tough. You’ve got to distance yourself, I guess, from that.”
Nguyen wanted to make sure the film (which opens Friday [October 19] in Vancouver) felt as natural and believable as possible, so he cast Congolese nonactor Rachel Mwanza—who he discovered in a documentary about life on the streets—as his 12-year-old title character, the “war witch” Komona. Mwanza has since earned best-actress awards from the Tribeca and Berlin film festivals for her performance.
“I had scraped my knees a little bit with my previous films [Le Marais and Truffe],” Nguyen explained. “Well, scraped them a lot, because there are some things that I really like about the films, especially all the formalistic elements that my crew did, but I think that narratively, and the way I directed the actors, there were a lot of pitfalls that I went dead-on in. So there’s a big difference with the way I worked with the previous films from this one. And I think that I’m going to be a little pretentiously metaphysical: there’s something about the process of directing, guiding living elements. Let’s say there were like molecules—molecules like being extras, actors, but they could also be nature, light…and not having a preconceived idea, but giving a strong direction and letting these molecules stay alive and colliding between each other.”
To keep the molecules moving, Nguyen wrote a script but didn’t ask his actors to stick to the lines, just the key plot points. “I took one actor apart and said, ‘This is what you should do today,’ and said ‘This is your objective.’ And then I would give completely different actions to a different actor, and let these molecules collide and fight against each other.”
Asked how he fell in love with filmmaking, Nguyen flashed back to high school and grinned at the memory. “I’ve always liked writing. And when I was in high school, I remember there was this art-class teacher who told us: ‘Do what you want,’ and he would grade us on that. And behind his desk, there was a room, and I opened it and it was all like crystals. It was a darkroom that was abandoned, and nobody had been there for like two years and the chemicals evaporated and it was, like, shiny. I asked him, ‘So, what is this darkroom; can I use it?’ ‘Yeah, sure.’…So just the first moment I saw my picture in the revelator, appearing… I like stories, and I loved being in darkrooms and printing pictures, so for me that was the gluing element: stories and pictures.”
Watch the trailer for Rebelle.