Telefilm Canada announced its pick on Tuesday, three days before the film opens in English Canada.
Rebelle has been widely praised on the film festival circuit, winning best actress and best narrative film award at the Tribeca Film Festival and a Silver Bear for best actress and an ecumenical prize at the Berlin Film Festival.
The young lead who won such acclaim is Rachel Mwanza, a 14-year-old Congolese girl who Nguyen found after a casting call in Kinshasa, where he shot the film.
She plays Komona, a 12-year-old who is forced by rebels to shoot her own parents, then abducted to fight for their cause as a child soldier. Komona’s story is far from bleak – she gains status as a “war witch” after she begins to see ghosts in the forest and is able to escape with the help of another orphaned teen, called Magician.
The sometimes brutal, sometimes surreal story is really a celebration of the resilience of young Africans, Nguyen said as he brought the film to the Toronto International Film Festival last week.
The festival screening in Toronto was attended by Prince Edward and Sophie Rhys-Jones, the Earl and Countess of Wessex.
Nguyen said he became interested in the stories of child soldiers after reading about Burmese twin brothers who had created their own child army.
“There is something about this mystery of pure Greek tragedy in modern times that I wanted to address so I started doing research into that,” he said.
By the time he had the resources to film, Nguyen had set his story in sub-Saharan Africa and had decided to shoot in Congo, a country he said fed the story with its own irrepressible spirit.
He welcomed Rebelle’s selection as Canada’s entry for an Academy Award.
“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 in a press statement.
The U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences allows just one entry for foreign-language film from each country.
A committee of 22 people, including representatives of government agencies and national industry associations chooses Canada’s film. In the past two years, Canadian entries Monsieur Lazhar and Incendies have been short-listed for the Oscar and international co-production In Darkness was also nominated.
The nominations for the 85th Academy Awards will be announced Jan. 10, 2013.