In a year when Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale returned with force to the public consciousness through the Hulu series of the same name, there’s something of its shared focus on ritual and patriarchal oppression that ripples through I am Not a Witch. But the debut feature by Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni is a distinctly unique affair, reflecting the cultural specificity of the African context within which her story is set, and a flair for powerful, political black comedy not wholly unlike that of fellow Brit Chris Morris (a point of comparison a few critics have made). At times sincerely moving, bleakly comic, infuriating and heartbreaking, I am Not a Witch is a shrewd interrogation of exploitation, power, gender and national and personal identity.
A co-production from Zambia, the UK, France, Germany and the Netherlands, the international origins of the project belie what plays out on screen as a film focused wholly on the experience of a young Zambian girl, Shula (Margaret Mulubwa). Yet her story thematically speaks to a broad scope of women and girls’ experiences of abuse and exploitation, rendering Nyoni’s first full-length movie following on from shorts like The List (2009), Mwansa the Great (2011) and Listen (2014) a distinctly controlled, masterful affair.
I am Not a Witch begins as the lonely, abandoned Shula is cast out of her Zambian community for her Otherness, dismissed by those who seek her expulsion as a witch. Sent to a ‘witch camp’ – an actual phenomenon the filmmaker carefully researched in Ghana – Shula finds herself a place within a community of women of all ages who had similarly found themselves ejected from normative society. As the youngest of the group, the novelty of ‘witch’ Shula is too much for the camp’s vile yet comically bumbling and corrupt public official Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri) who ‘manages’ the ‘witches’, who farms her out to perform the role of ‘African child witch’ wherever he sees opportunity knocking.
The simultaneous beauty, comedy and tragedy of I am Not a Witch is hidden in plain sight in the film’s very title: forced to perform a culturally specific vision of witchcraft for curious tourists, superstitious neighbouring villagers and even on national television, Shula is not a witch at all. The pressure of the role forced upon her and her exposure to the lives of adult women who – although on different paths – share a similar childhood to hers is rendered literal in one of the film’s most striking visual symbols: long white ribbons attached to the backs of the ‘witches’ through a clunky harness that keeps them tethered to the truck that drives them from work site to work site. These ribbons bind the women to a system that sees them as subjects of total domination, and yet also becomes for Shula a way of identifying others like herself. What this actually means in terms of autonomy, liberation and identity for Shula and the other women of the film lies at the heart of I am Not a Witch, one of the funniest and saddest films of 2017.