Directed by Rungano Nyoni
Starring Maggie Mulubwa, Henry BJ Phiri, Nancy Mulilo, John Tembo
Persecution, prejudices and politics are explored in seething, yet unexpectedly humorous ways, in this assured debut from Rungano Nyoni, who has begun what is likely to be a very promising career with this culturally probing and visually arresting film.
In modern-day Zambia, young Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is convicted of witchcraft, due to no more than mere hearsay, and is sentenced to be tethered by a ribbon along with the other witches, all of whom are old enough to be her mum or grandma. She is told that she can now live the restricted life of a witch in this ‘witch camp’ community, or sever her ribbon and be transformed into a goat.
There’s something stunningly cinematic about how this tale has been peculiarly put on screen. The witches attached to a large spindle by ribbons is a beautifully shot and thoroughly memorable aspect of the film that is not only visually striking, but portrays the constant lack of freedom for these women.
The constructor of this imprisonment, Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), decides that Shula’s youthfulness makes her an unusual and worthy political tool for himself, so he attaches her ribbon to a more portable spindle and parades her around from local courts to local TV stations, these sequences of which all hit home the disastrous manipulation underlying Shula’s treatment, all the while actually being able to induce a lot of laughs without undermining these issues.
This sort of tonal control is to director Nyoni’s credit, assuaging any didactic feeling through the wonderful use of comedy, which is at its most powerful and most hilarious when this savage satire is at its peak. All of this on-screen originality and unpredictable tonal shifts make I Am Not a Witch a mesmerising watch, and it also makes the fairly obvious and disappointingly easy-going ending, as ambiguous as it is, feel like a bit of a let-down (even if it ends with a really strong final shot).
Amidst all the important issues raised by I Am Not a Witch, a little more clarity in its overall message would’ve rounded off this spectacular film. It’s also a little disappointing that its cinematic value has been negated by the desaturated cinematography, not exactly doing favours for the dry landscapes this film is mostly set in. These issues don’t quite detract from the wonder and social importance that this startling film delivers, leaving us with a triumphant piece of work.
I Am Not a Witch plays at UWA Somerville from Monday, March 26 to Thursday, March 29, & Saturday, March 31 to Sunday, April 1, 7:30pm.