09/18/2012 03:28 EDT | Updated 11/18/2012 05:12 EST

'Rebelle' is Canada's selection for best foreign-language Oscar

Montreal-born filmmaker Kim Nguyen's child-soldier drama "Rebelle" ("War Witch") will be Canada's entry in this year's foreign-language Oscar race.

Telefilm Canada says it's confident the harrowing French-language feature "will win over the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences."

"Rebelle" stars newcomer Rachel Mwanza as a teen who is forced to fight with, and become a sex slave for, a rebel commander in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The 15-year-old, who was abandoned by her parents and used to live on the streets in the Congolese capital of Kinshasa, has won best-actress trophies at the 2012 Tribeca and Berlin film festivals for the role.

Canada is one of 65 countries that will submit films in the foreign-language category before a long list is announced by the academy. Five finalists will ultimately be in the running when Oscar nominations come out Jan. 10.

The Academy Awards have been kind to Quebec films in recent years. At this year's Oscars, Philippe Falardeau's tender tale "Monsieur Lazhar" was a final nominee, but was edged out by Iran's "A Separation."

The previous year, Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies" made the ultimate list of finalists, but was beaten by Denmark's "In a Better World."

Both of those films were from the Quebec producing team of Luc Dery and Kim McCraw.

The last time a Canuck film won the category was in 2004 for Denys Arcand's "The Barbarian Invasions."

The 85th Academy Awards will be handed out on Feb. 24.

In a statement, Nguyen said he was touched by the announcement.

"After 10 years in development and a production marked by many adventures that have provided me with everlasting memories of the Congo and its people, this recognition warms my heart," he said.

"It was truly a team effort and this recognition is sincerely shared with everyone who worked on this film, from the writing, to the creation and production, as well as with all our financial partners who believed in us despite the risks."

Nguyen has helped set up a four-year program for Mwanza, who'd never acted before shooting "Rebelle" last summer in Congo. That program includes providing her with room and board, education and food in her poor hometown of Kinshasa.

Still, despite the support and awards for her role in "Rebelle," life is "not a fairytale for her," the writer-director admitted in an interview at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Producer Marie-Claude Poulin of the production company Item 7 said they hope the accolades and Oscar hope will "give her the confidence and the will to get educated."

"That's what we're aiming for and that's what we're trying to help her to do, because that's all we can do," Poulin said Tuesday.

"Rebelle" has been sold in more than 25 territories.

Poulin said they plan to meet with American distributor Tribeca Films later this week to build a strategy to try to make it to the list of finalists for the best foreign-language Oscar.

"Obviously having an American distributor on board is definitely a plus."