Director: Rungano Nyoni
Cast: Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri, Nancy Murilo
Watch I Am Not a Witch online in the UK: Netflix UK / Curzon Home Cinema / iTunes / Prime Video (Buy/Rent) / Google Play
Welsh-raised, Zambian-born director Rungano Nyoni makes an impressive, impressionistic debut with her film I Am Not a Witch: a dark satirical fairy tale (of sorts) concerning an eight-year-old girl accused of being a witch, following a banal incident, and the forces that serve to exploit her.
The accused is Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), a small, big-eyed, largely stoic girl living in a Zambian village. Per the local tradition, after being found guilty in a short trial she is given an ultimatum: join a travelling witch camp or become a goat.
Opting for the troop, Shula is taken into state custody by an official named Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) and exiled to a witch camp in the middle of a desert. There, she is initiated via a ceremony and shown the rules surrounding her new life as a witch, a fate to which she initially seems unresponsive. Like the other (older) women in the camp, Shula is tied to a ribbon, which is attached to a coil that perches in a large tree. The idea is that should any of the ‘witches’ ever break the ribbon, they’ll be cursed and transformed into a goat. As well as being rooted in factual details, the ribbon concept plays a big part in some of the most visually striking material in Nyoni’s film.
The women of the camp are also used for public display as tourist attractions. They are members of a human zoo, but the state also uses them for other purposes. One day, Mr. Banda brings Shula along to a police crackdown of sorts, using her ‘powers’ to identity thieves. When she unwittingly identifies the correct culprit, and then another and so on, she gains a reputation that the entrepreneurially-minded Banda uses for his own purposes, leading to TV chat show appearances and using the girl’s fame to hawk products on air.
Banda, and the media circus tied to him, drives the film’s satirical bent, and Phiri plays him with a winning mix of deadpan and dim wits. He’s the source of much humour, until certain narrative and character reveals remove that element pretty conclusively. The use of the character speaks to the film’s electric shifts in tone between dark humour and gut-wrenching tragedy.
What does remain constant in this allegorical tale is the sharp critique of attitudes toward women; here, a little girl victimised by a society that exploits the vulnerable or unwanted in the name of beliefs they don’t necessarily actually harbour with any degree of consistency. While the specific details are rooted in a particular culture, that same attitude is prevalent in all too many societies around the world – the United States, to name just one.
I Am Not a Witch is a film that shocks and surprises, but not just in story and thematic content. Few might expect Estelle’s “American Boy” to fit so comfortably alongside Vivaldi on a film’s soundtrack, but that’s just one way in which Nyoni makes a mark as an interesting new talent.
I Am Not a Witch is available on Netflix UK, as part of an £8.99 monthly subscription.
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