When a film sets out to tell the story of a young girl, who is essentially abducted and forced to live in a Zambian witch camp, there is already expectation that this will be a harrowing, heart-rending and ultimately nihilistic experience. And, at times, I Am Not a Witch is exactly that. It is also beautiful, tragic, touching and perhaps most unexpectedly, very funny.
Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature opens on a tourist bus, visiting a witch camp, where women of various ages are tethered to poles by long, white ribbons. We are then introduced to Shula, a young girl accused of witchcraft, who is subsequently taken to live at the camp as part of a government program to handle people accused, and subsequently found guilty of, witchcraft (the process for which is as primitive as you would imagine it to be).
She too is tethered by a white ribbon, and is told that should she remove the ribbon, she will turn into a goat. Shula is adopted by the women in the camp, and tries to adjust to her new life. But it is not long before the government official responsible for her capture, sees an opportunity to benefit from the new addition.
It is interesting to compare Nyoni’s film to Robert Eggers’ 2015 film, The Witch. As here, like in that film, we have a young girl being persecuted for something she has no control, nor understanding of, and that really has no place in an enlightened society. The difference is that The Witch was set in the 1800s.
By comparison, I Am Not a Witch takes place in present day Zambia. And Nyoni frequently reminds us of this with glimpses of cities, a television talk show, and a comedic scene involving a mobile phone. Such stark contrasts emphasise the insanity, and unfairness, of Shula’s fate, because it’s difficult to accept that any belief in witchcraft of the type Shula is accused of can exist in a contemporary society. Then again, there are elements of Shula’s situation that are all too relatable to modern life.
Arguably, the most disturbing scene of the film occurs when Shula finds herself in an environment that seems safe, in comparison to the wilderness where the camp is situated. She is taken to the home of the government official, who declared her a witch, and there she is looked after by the official’s wife, herself a former witch who lived through the same fate Shula is now suffering.
The wife tells Shula that she was eventually allowed to be set free from her ribbon, after years of doing what she was told, and showing due respect to her husband and captor. It plays almost like a scene from The Handmaid’s Tale, and similarly it resonates with a depiction of misogyny that is all too familiar.
We later discover that the official’s wife is not as free as she would like to think, when Shula refuses to perform a raindance, and her new mentor is forced to take her place, humiliating herself in the process. Like the ribbon, her marriage provides an illusion of freedom, but stray too far, and she finds herself just as constrained and belittled as she ever was.
It is this resonance with western misogyny that helps I Am Not a Witch feel relevant and vital, despite the almost alien subject matter. Another interesting element, is that the story is presented in a way that at first makes it seem like the rough edges have been smoothed away. There is lightness to the film, particularly in the group scenes, when the absurdity of a modern-day witch comes to the fore.
In addition, although we see cruelty in the way Shula is treated we are mercifully spared the sight of any violence. As these contrasting approaches to violence and humour continue, it becomes apparent that the rougher edges have not been smoothed away. They have, instead, been hidden deliberately in a way that drives home a sense of hidden suffering beneath the surface of everyday life.
What’s really striking about I Am Not a Witch, is how bold and confident the film is for a debut. There is an assuredness to the filmmaking, reminiscent of Julie Ducournau’s debut, Raw. The film runs to a lean 92 minutes, and there is not a single self-indulgent frame in the whole thing. This is a filmmaker who knows exactly what she wants to achieve, and how to achieve it.
She has some strong assistance, of course, notably from the stark cinematography of David Gellego. And a brilliant, understated performance from Margaret Mulubwa. However, the lasting impression of I Am Not a Witch, is that this is the work of a bold, new cinematic voice, and it will be exciting to see how this develops in Rungano Nyoni’s subsequent work.