I Am Not a Witch
In this directorial debut from Welsh-Zambian Rungano Nyoni, we learn of the corruption of the government at exploiting those accused of witchcraft. “What if she’s actually but a child?” one character asks, referring to the accused eight-year-old Shula, played with a haunting vulnerability by Maggie Mulubwa, but his remark is quickly dismissed in favour of promoting the little girl’s “magic eggs”.
It’s an interesting concept from Nyoni, who spent time researching at a “witch camp” in Ghana. She presents us with the idea of these “witches” being grounded by white ribbons and used as a tourist attraction, with one scene striking hard as a white tourist attempts to cheer up a distraught Shula by taking a selfie with her. The film is not only a judgement on those who treat these women as an attraction, but those who accuse them in the first place.
Some comedy comes in the form of a man who accuses Shula of cutting off his arm, which he then retracts as a dream, after realising his arm is quite clearly still attached. Also, in how, once accused, a witch can say anything and be believed, as Shula chooses a man, seemingly randomly, out of a line-up.
Yet, whilst the film succeeds at presenting the beauty of the deserts of Zambia through David Gallego’s colourful cinematography, its narrative falls short. The plot’s tragic twist is left largely unexplained in favour of some artsy musical contrast, and therefore any emotional attachment built towards the characters up until this point seems wasted. Equally, the presentation is chaotic, with some scenes dragging unnecessarily, leaving others to be cut abruptly.
With this debut, it’s evident that Nyoni has strong ideas that she wants to get across, and the feminist aspects are undeniable. However, the poignant shots of white ribbons blowing in the wind don’t compensate for the uncertain motives of the piece. Are we supposed to feel sad or empowered by the circumstances of this child? Are we supposed to criticise the idiocy of the culture or brush off the traditions as satire? Despite its gorgeous scenery and intense use of colour and song, the narrative failures prevent I Am Not a Witch from becoming truly significant.
I Am Not a Witch is released in selected cinemas on 20th October 2017.
Watch the trailer for I Am Not a Witch here: