TORONTO - "Rebelle (War Witch)" star Rachel Mwanza has gone from living on the streets in the capital of Congo to winning best-actress trophies at the 2012 Tribeca and Berlin film festivals.
Yet the situation is "not a fairytale for her," admits Kim Nguyen, the Montreal-born writer-director of the Canadian drama that stars Mwanza as a child soldier in Sub-Saharan Africa.
In an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival, where "Rebelle" is earning high praise, Nguyen said he's helped set up a four-year program for the now-15-year-old. The program includes getting her room and board, education and food in her hometown of Kinshasa.
"When she's 18 she's going to get a small chunk of money so she can maybe buy a lot or start a business or whatever," he explained.
"But the challenges are immense. Yesterday night I got an emergency email from our colleague who's checking up on her and the room and board that we gave her, the person started being erratic and she hit Rachel a couple of times, so we decided to take her out of there.
"From a distance it's really hard to manage, so she's in another place right now but she was crying all night. It's really tough."
In "Rebelle," Mwanza's teenage character is forced to become the "war witch" for the leader of a rebel group that includes the young Magicien (Serge Kanyinda), whom she falls in love with.
Nguyen held open casting sessions in Kinshasa and hired mostly non-professional actors, including Mwanza, for the film that he wrote over a 10-year period and shot in Congo.
"Rachel was living in the streets before we did the film and she was just mind-blowing," said Nguyen.
"She was just so good in the moment."
Mwanza became homeless after her parents left for Angola and abandoned her, said Nguyen.
The filmmaker has a friend in Kinshasa who's helping to arrange for Mwanza's care there.
"But he can't take her in because it's complicated there," said Nguyen.
"So we're just making sure he's like her guardian angel and he's checking up, but it's always complicated."
The Toronto International Film Festival runs through Sunday.