I Am Not A Witch

UK/France/Germany (2017) Dir. Rungano Nyoni

Admit it ladies, you’ve all had to make this declaration to repudiate the accusation from the men in your life during a heated argument, but at least it would be forgotten after you’ve lamped him with a frying pan. Spare a thought then for the poor girl in this tale for whom this slanderous claim is actually taken seriously.

In a small Zambian village, 8 year-old orphan girl Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is accused of witchcraft when alleged strange occurrences begin after her arrival. The village chief and a “real” witch doctor conduct an experiment that sees Shula convicted of being a witch, so she is sent to witch camp, inhabited by elderly women dumped by their families, who take Shula under their wings.

Shortly after arriving at the camp, Shula is taken away again by corrupt government official Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), a bumbling but sly man full of his own importance who believes there is money to be made out of a junior witch. Shula begrudgingly goes along with the scam but despairs at the lengths Banda will go to in exploiting her and the other women of the witch camp.

You might not realise it at first but I Am Not A Witch is actually a satire on corruption, tourist attractions based on exploitation and outdated superstitions – the latter being surprisingly more real in the modern world than you might think. In her research trip to Ghana, Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni spent time in genuine witch camps for women accused of being witches, forming the germination of the story for this, her feature debut.

From a western perspective, it is easy to mock the gullibility of people still beholden to such archaic beliefs, and initially Nyoni leads us to believe that this is a product of a simple, immutable community living under impecunious circumstances. Later in the film however, with Shula under the affluent auspices of Banda and his ex-witch wife Charity (Nancy Murilo), even people in the city and modern suburbia reveal themselves to hold witches in fearful contempt.

This is just a small example of the many paradoxes present in this film that supply it with its sardonic undercurrent. A sillier example would be a public meeting where Shula is called upon to discern the thief from a line up of potential criminals, which is interrupted by mobile phones going off. How can people living in the middle of nowhere who can barely eat healthily afford iPhones?

As a government official, Mr. Banda is the story’s totem of prosperity through ill-gotten gains. Always seen in a smart suit – despite being a rather rotund chap – and possessing a silver tongue with semi-confident snap to it which he knows the local peasants will cower to; Banda carries himself without fear of reproach despite being a complete idiot – a Zambian Boris Johnson if you will.

But Banda’s pernicious self-serving machinations are only half the story. For someone of her young age, Shula proves smarter than those around her, but her expressionless face and sparse conversation gives nothing away to the audience whilst confirming the worst for her critics. Even if she doesn’t fully understand the concept of exploitation, Shula knows wrong from right, showing more conscience than those trying to profit from her.

Shula is brought before beleaguered police officer Josephine (Nellie Munamonga) by a woman who fell over as she passed Shula on the road, and a man who claimed Shula cut his arm off with an axe – a story that would have had more merit if both arms weren’t still intact. A “real” witch doctor tries a more scientific approach, giving Shula a piece of ribbon; if she cuts it she’ll be turned into a goat, leave it as is and she is a witch.

The symbolism of the ribbon is revealed at the witch camp, where all the witches are tied to a large spindle via a mile long thread of ribbon which again must not be cut as per the goat stipulation. Of course, none of the women are witches so this is a Zambian equivalent of a rather misogynistic retirement home, but at least they get some infamy when being ogled by fascinated tourists.

Nyoni portrays these women as mentally recalcitrant but philosophically mollified by the idiocy of their situation, also applied to Shula, who is no better off, being paraded on TV talk shows by Banda as a bringer of rain to their desperately arid village. At one point, Charity lectures Shula on respect, which she “earned” through her willing subjugation to Banda, before revealing the detachable ribbon she still has to wear.

The cynicism wanes a little by the final act, as if Nyoni realised a cycle of repetition in relaying Shula’s plight was looming, but pulls things back on track with a powerful yet bleakly gravid denouement. The humour is fleeting, at times aping a BBC Three “docu-comedy” with its reality based mockery, the subject matter allowing occasional surreal moments not to ruin the tone.

Using a cast of non-professional actors is a bold move but one that pays off in creating an authentic mise-en-scene where everyone looks and behaves “normally” – old women with no teeth and wrinkled faces, men with beer bellies and naturally gauche postures – and not incongruously cast eye-candy. Even in HD, the spartan vistas of rural Zambia are oppressively clammy and uninspiring completing the pared back visual experience.

As the focal point of the film, Maggie Mulubwa as Shula is astounding – assured, poised, quietly intense yet an easily sympathetic child figure – and a future star in the making, whilst in the opposite corner, Henry BJ Phiri has a future in nuanced comedy if his turn as the deluded Banda is any indication.

Rungano Nyoni has opened many eyes, and rightfully so, with I Am Not A Witch, an original, bold and confident launching pad for this promising writer-director.