Kim Nguyen’s film “War Witch”

March 22, 2013

Hello, I’m June Simms. Welcome to AS IT IS! …

your daily magazine show from VOA Learning English.

Today on our show, we tell about a special group of women who made guitars during World War Two.

We also hear the story of Komona, a female child soldier who is the subject of an Oscar-nominated film. The film was nominated for an Oscar at the recent Academy Awards show in Los Angeles. It did not win. But the story of survival in war-torn Africa has gained the attention of people around the world.

Kim Nguyen’s film “War Witch” is about a 12 year-old girl captured by rebel forces in Africa. Komona is forced to become a child soldier after rebels take her from her people.

“We are rebels. Respect your guns. They are your new mother and father.”

She is given what is called “magic milk” from the trees. The drug makes her see spirits in the forest. They warn her of enemy gunfire and so she becomes known as a witch.

But Komona is just a little girl. She learns the mechanics of killing well, but desires a normal life.

During the fighting, Komona falls in love with another child soldier.

Filmmaker Kim Nguyen says he included a love story in the film because, even in the middle of war, life goes on.

“When I visited Burundi, I saw these realities where people are struggling to find a meal every day and they are fighting and there is violence and yet you still hear in the night jealous husbands, jealous wives, still looking for love, for a family, for stability, for faithfulness, continuity, whatever, even in completely chaotic state of war.”

Rachel Mwanza plays Komona. She never received training as an actress. But she gives a strong performance by relating to her personal experience with homelessness.

Rachel Mwanza says her goal is to start a group to help homeless children in Congo.

“And really that's my idea that I would like to help the children of the street because in the street there are many children who suffer. There are many people who suffer in my country. I know many people who I see are suffering.”

“War Witch” presents the struggles of people in a violent world where tradition and superstitious ideas are common.

This is AS IT IS. I’m June Simms

During World War Two, as American men went off to war, women filled the jobs they left behind. Women worked in factories, stores and shipyards. One group of women made musical instruments, building Gibson guitars. Christopher Cruise has more on their story.

John Thomas is a writer and a lover of guitars. He was surprised when he saw a wartime photograph of the Gibson guitar factory in Michigan. Nearly all of the 75 people in the picture were women. Irene Stearns, now age 90, spent several of the war years working at the factory.

“I got out of high school and everybody is looking for a job, and there weren’t any jobs. Then one day, they called and I started at Gibson. I suppose it was because of the war.”

Irene Stearns is one of the former Gibson factory workers who John Thomas found in the Kalamazoo, Michigan area. She made guitar strings for some of the thousands of instruments the factory produced in the 1940s.

“All the celebrities and people who were buying the guitars would come and they would be on the other side of the wall where I sat making strings. So, it was really nice in that part. I could hear them playing all these beautiful guitars.”

John Thomas calls the women who worked at the Gibson factory, the “Kalamazoo Gals.” That is also the name of his new book about the female guitar makers. He believes the company kept their work secret because it did not think guitar buyers of the day would use instruments built by women.

Mr. Thomas collected three of the World War II Gibson guitars and borrowed several others to help tell the story. Then a friend told him about Lauren Sheehan, a professional musician who agreed to help.

“When the author said, 'I'm thinking about making this record,' and wouldn't it be cool if a woman played the guitar since it's a whole women's story, I thought, God this gets better and better, that would be a great project. And then he invited me to do it. Certainly I'm a champion for a story about women excelling at work that is traditionally a man's domain.”

For the new CD that comes with John Thomas’ book, Lauren Sheehan plays songs that were popular during World War II. Each tune was played on a different Gibson guitar.

“Okay, so here’s one.”

After she finished recording the songs, Lauren Sheehan bought a restored Gibson guitar for herself. She says she wanted to own a piece of America’s musical heritage. I’m Christopher Cruise.

That’s AS IT IS for today. I’m June Simms.

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Tune in again tomorrow for AS IT IS with VOA’s Kelly Jean Kelly, as she visits and environmental film festival.