As part of her research for her debut feature, I Am Not a Witch, Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni spent some time in real witch camps in Zambia and Ghana. These so-called ‘refuges’ for women who have been accused of witchcraft are, in truth, merely an insidious means of control for misogynistic, superstitious chiefs.
Nyoni’s experiences have fed directly into I Am Not a Witch, which takes the rather surreal notion that women are today still being accused of witchcraft, and presents it as a dark, comic story of one child’s experience in one of these camps.
The young girl in question is eight-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who is reported as a witch by her neighbours and subsequently given a simple choice by the authorities who take her into custody: confess to being a witch, or be turned into a goat. A rational adult might laugh at the ludicrousness of this, but to a child’s mind, the magic of such fairy tales is very real. Shula, therefore, confesses her witch-hood.
Shula and the other witches are marked as such by the long, white ribbons that tether them to large, spindle-like anchors, a mechanism designed to prevent them from flying away. Wherever the women go, these ribbons mark them as witches, and they are treated with according disdain by other members of their community. More importantly, though, the tethers serve as a powerful symbol of the women’s degradation at the hands of the men who control them.
The last feature that cinematographer David Gallego worked on was Ciro Guerra’s mesmerising Embrace of the Serpent (2015). Here, he helps to bring Rungano Nyoni’s story to life with expressive shots of the Zambian landscape and a close focus on the witches themselves. At the centre of them, the diminutive but fierce Shula casts shadows over those around her. She does everything she can to defy the authorities that constrain her, officials like Mr. Banda (B.J. Phiri), who uses her ‘powers’ to identify criminals and peddle his wares like a snake oil salesman on television chat shows.
There is a thinly veiled anger running through I Am Not a Witch, which is mainly directed through Shula. Her mistreatment, and her growing awareness that those in power do not actually have her best interests at heart, provokes a defiant response, but one that is beaten back as the film progresses. It is at times a very unhappy film, despite the wicked humour that permeates Rungano Nyoni’s script.
I Am Not a Witch defies classification. It is fantasy, comedy, social study, and feminist allegory all rolled into one. Its portrayal of the Zambian witch camps is, by the director’s admission, exaggerated, but this only serves to emphasise the absurdity that they exist in the real world at all. The film does not aim to teach, but encourages us to learn its message. It does not promise a happy ending but, with sadness and great beauty, leaves its loose ends fluttering like ribbons in the breeze.
Country: United Kingdom, France, Germany Language: English, Bemba, Nyanja, Tonga Year: 2017 Director: Rungano Nyoni Writer: Rungano Nyoni Starring: Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri Runtime: 93 minutes