London Film Festival Review: Rungano Nyoni’s ‘I Am Not a Witch’

I Am Not A Witch is the story of a turning point in a young woman’s life. Runzgano Nyoni’s debut feature examines the raw, heartbreaking and tongue-bitingly funny account of exiled witches, with a focus on Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who has been accused of being a witch by the local townsfolk. About 15 minutes into the film, she’s given a choice: either cut the white ribbon attached to her shirt and risk becoming a goat, or leave the ribbon intact and join a community of witches who have been forcibly segregated from their friends and family. After a brief and absurd trial, Shula chooses to join the witches, which is as good as an admission of guilt for government official Mr. Banda, who later uses the girl’s “spiritual powers” in an attempt to settle civil court cases in the town.

What follows is a rather one-sided partnership between Shula and Mr. Banda (played with ease by Henry B.J. Phiri). The girl is taken on chat shows to root out petty criminals and to perform a rain dance, whilst simultaneously being used to maximize business prospects.

A satirical take on Zambian witch-hunting traditions, Nyoni’s film succeeds in being both funny and poignant at the same time — a balance which all good satires should aim to satisfy. Though one may laugh at the absurdity, the ending leaves a bitter taste. Should viewers laugh at the characters and their ridiculousness? I Am Not a Witch consistently uses this humour to point out the absolute lunacy of the situation poor Shula finds herself in — but, in a real sense, Shula’s fate is sealed from the beginning.

In an odd way, it’s hard not to compare several scenes to moments from Monty Python, particularly how one determines if someone is a witch. Equally, the utter incompetence and insincerity of Mr. Bunda and the other authority figures are not dissimilar to Edgar Wright’s satires (especially Hot Fuzz). Though his films may not seem comparable to I Am Not a Witch (especially in terms of subject matter), they all are cutting with their comedic social commentaries.

Nyoni seamlessly merges Western iconography with Zambian cultural traditions. Shula is initially seen dressed in a t-shirt with “#bootycall” emblazoned on the front. When a witch’s daughter brings wigs to the camp, they discuss Rihanna’s hairstyles. One of the wigs is named after Kim Kardashian, another after Beyoncé. At times, it feels surreal to see the sincerity in labelling these women as witches (set against a backdrop of Western imagery and music), but these Western nods serve as a reminder that this abuse is happening in the world we live in right now.

Visually, I Am Not a Witch will certainly satisfy those with a penchant for arthouse films. Though perhaps slightly too meandering for mainstream audiences, the long takes of dusty landscapes are sublime. The use of colour for the witches’ outfits stand out against the dry yellow backdrop of the farmlands, reiterating the camp’s absurdity. However, it’s the white ribbons, tied onto huge wooden spools (which are then attached to the back of each witch), that are the real production triumph. The ribbons are a physical restraint, designed so that the women cannot wander off or “fly away.” They flutter beautifully in the wind, the trail on the floor snaking around the women’s hands and feet. Their structure makes them seem ridiculous, like oversize thread spools that a giant would use. They are carried everywhere, a physical reminder of the freedom that evades the women.

From the cast of nonprofessional actors, Mulubwa is effortlessly authentic as Shula. Though the character has little dialogue (it is quite possible that she has the fewest lines of all of the speaking parts), Mulubwa conveys Shula’s discomfort, confusion and anger throughout the film. Unlike the older women, Shula is unable to accept her situation. Also unlike her fellow witches, she is untalkative and shy, rarely speaking even when the women are kind to her. This shyness seems like part of Shula’s identity, but she blossoms when attending a school for a brief period. Shula is visibly happy, smiling perhaps for the first time in the film. Nyoni invites viewers to see the character as just a child, one who has been banished from her town and used by various adults for her “special skills.” Mulubwa is perfect in the role — simultaneously childlike while bearing the weight of the adult world on her shoulders.

Nyoni spent a substantial amount of time in Zambia researching the witch camps in preparation for the film. As a native of Cardiff, the Welsh director has explained that she got the initial idea whilst visiting family in Zambia one summer. There are real witch camps — part tourist attractions, part government schemes — where women accused of witchcraft are forced to live. Nyoni’s artistic interpretation of this distressing phenomenon is a refreshing, unique and smart critique of the system. Shot beautifully, with an imposing yet wholly appropriate classical soundtrack to match, I Am Not a Witch is worth the watch.

Becky Kukla (@kuklamoo) spends her days working in TV and writing about cinema and feminism. Based in London, she also likes drinking gin, re-watching ‘The X Files’ and writing about on-screen representation at femphile.com. She’s also a regular contributor at Bitch Flicks and Film Inquiry.

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