A Film a Week - I Am Not a Witch

Apparently, witchcraft is still the thing in rural Africa, at least enough to justify the existence of witch camps. From Western point of view it might sound like summer camp or B-horror movie type of fun, but it is definitely no fun for women living in such communities without the option to leave and lead a normal life. Zambia-born but Wales-based filmmaker Rugano Nyoni has got the idea to make a film about that while visiting such place in Ghana. Set in Zambia and filled with the cast of non-professionals I Am Not a Witch plays equally as an honest cry for help, a deadpan satire and a study in social anthropology, which makes it more than an intriguing feature debut.

The opening sequence takes us on tour. We are on a bus, on a dusty road in Africa, with tourists, some of them white. The bus stops, and the passengers go out to see a human zoo which exhibits women, dressed in blue, with white stripes on their faces and with long ribbons tied to their backs. These women are presented as witches by the camp overseer, and the ribbons are their anchors so they won’t fly away. The tourists ask some questions, take some photos and move on, so this might just be a show put on for them.

It is time to meet our heroine, as we do on an even more isolated road. A village woman carries a pail of well-water on her head. Contrary to the romantic image of African tribal women doing such things with elegance, she trips and falls when she sees a young girl who might be new to the area. Since it is easier to blame, the girl later named Shula (played in stunning fashion by Margaret Mulubwa) was taken to the police station for accusations of witchcraft. The villagers testify, with one of them telling the story how he has lost his arm (his both arms are quite visible) because of the girl. Since the girl is neither confirming nor denying the allegations, the government official Banda (Henri Phiri) is summoned, the test ritual is done, so Shula gets to the witch camp where she has to spend the night in the shed: if she cuts the ribbon, she will be turned to goat, but will technically be free to go where she pleases. If she stays, she will accept her role as a witch.

The thing is that the witches serve as the key part of Mr Banda’s lucrative business of human zoos, slave labour, tribal courts and media appearances, so the pre-teen girl witch is definitely a god-given prize to him. Under the wing of his wife, a former witch herself, Shula seems destined for glory only if she “plays ball”. Alas, the things are a bit more complicated than that…

I Am Not a Witch is a brave film. Not so with the choice of topic which turns to be just the right amount exotic and engaging for the target audience of Western arthouse film-goers, but with the stylistic choice of broken, elliptical narrative that masks the filmmaker’s attitude somewhere between making fun of the backwards society, the activism to end the inhumane practices and the study of behaviour of people that always have superstition at disposal to blame someone or something for their failure as well as the choices of cinematography (almost touristically arresting visuals of Africa in full colour are completely opposite from what we have seen David Gallego in The Embrace of the Serpent), music that includes both Vivaldi’s Four Seasons and MTV-pop like Estelle’s American Boy and costume design Holly Rebecca that could be exhibited on a fashion show or at the art gallery as an installation.

The troubles with such an approach and episode structure surface near the end of the film. Sure, some of the stuff before was played just for laughs or some shock value, but Nyoni was able to pull it off just because of her sheer confidence and the actors’ charisma. The trouble is that in the ellipses we lose any sense of Shula’s motivation for doing this or that. The suggestion somewhere around the mid-point that she could be just a child (and not a witch, of course) seems like an easy way out because it just confirms our common knowledge. The biggest trouble comes in the form of plot twist near the end that serves only to amplify the emotional impact of tragedy, without offering any explanation what has actually happened. But nevertheless, those are honest and brave mistakes of a young filmmaker, and Rugano Nyoni could prove to be the force to be reckoned with.

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