AWFJ Presents: I AM NOT A WITCH – Review by Jennifer Merin

0 Flares 0 Flares ×

I Am Not A Witch is a stunning fantasy-like tale about naive Shula, an eight year old orphaned girl in rural Zambia, who finds her way into a village where she happens to witness a local woman fall down and spill a jug of water she was carrying. The villagers accuse Shula of witchcraft, of causing the accident. Shula, who cannot properly identify herself, nor explain her circumstances, is put on trial by the local authority, represented by a manipulative bureaucratic functionary who handles all incidents of witchcraft. When Shula is found guilty, he takes charge of her. She’s now considered property of the state and is sentenced to live at a witch camp, where she’s tethered to a large spool of ribbon and warned that if she cuts her tethering ribbon and attempts escape, she will be turned into a goat.

Put in the care of elder crones at the witch camp, Shula is indoctrinated to the superstition-laden behavior expected of her. Youngest and most noticeable of the witches, and a real ‘catch,’ she is subjected to extracurricular exploitation by the authorities who control her life. She’s put on zoo-like display for paying tourists, subjected to gawker-satisfying appearances on TV news and talk shows and put into the news-making position of judging the accused at a criminal trial she doesn’t really understand. She is also expected to induce rainfall that will end the drought that is devastating the local farms at which she, as one of the interred slave witches, is also forced to labor in the arid fields.

It all becomes harder for her when she fails to deliver on some expectations and she falls from favor with her bureaucratic handler. Young Shula is so disturbed by all of the confusing and terrifying demands made on her, she begins to think she’d be better off as a goat. When she articulates that thought, she’s told in no uncertain terms that goats are killed and eaten. Life as a witch or death as a goat. Shula’s fate hangs in the balance.

I Am Not A Witch is the beautifully crafted and profoundly provocative first feature from writer/director Rungaro Nyoni, who was born in Zambia but moved at a young age to Wales. The fascinating story she tells in the film is based on her personal observations and extensive research on witchcraft superstitions and the treatment of those accused of witchcraft in Zambia and Ghana. The film, a rich mix of smartly entertaining satire and sharp social commentary, was shot in an actual witch camp that has been in existence for some 400 years. Nyoni’s choice to cast local people in the film gives the fantasy-like scenario a feeling of alarming authenticity.

Masterfully bewitching storytelling about an orphan girl’s quest for identity, superb performances by first-time actor Maggie Mulubwa as the girl and a fine ensemble cast, exquisite cinematography that reveals nuanced emotions in close ups and captures broad sweeps of Zambia’s expansive arid landscape, and outstanding editing skills that balance satire and serious social commentary have brought I Am Not A Witch and Rungano Nyoni numerous awards. Nyoni’s cinematic style is unique and fascinating. I Am Not A Witch is a must see. And, it warrants a second watch, as well.


0 Flares Twitter 0 Facebook 0 0 Flares ×

Jennifer Merin

Jennifer Merin is the Film Critic for Womens eNews and contributes the CINEMA CITIZEN blog for and is managing editor for Women on Film, the online magazine of the Alliance of Women Film Journalists, of which she is President. She has served as a regular critic and film-related interviewer for The New York Press and She has written about entertainment for USA Today, The L.A. Times, US Magazine, Ms. Magazine, Endless Vacation Magazine, Daily News, New York Post, SoHo News and other publications. After receiving her MFA from Tisch School of the Arts (Grad Acting), Jennifer performed at the O'Neill Theater Center's Playwrights Conference, Long Wharf Theater, American Place Theatre and LaMamma, where she worked with renown Japanese director, Shuji Terayama. She subsequently joined Terayama's theater company in Tokyo, where she also acted in films. Her journalism career began when she was asked to write about Terayama for The Drama Review. She became a regular contributor to the Christian Science Monitor after writing an article about Marketta Kimbrell's Theater For The Forgotten, with which she was performing at the time. She was an O'Neill Theater Center National Critics' Institute Fellow, and then became the institute's Coordinator. While teaching at the Universities of Wisconsin and Rhode Island, she wrote "A Directory of Festivals of Theater, Dance and Folklore Around the World," published by the International Theater Institute. Denmark's Odin Teatret's director, Eugenio Barba, wrote his manifesto in the form of a letter to "Dear Jennifer Merin," which has been published around the world, in languages as diverse as Farsi and Romanian. Jennifer's culturally-oriented travel column began in the LA Times in 1984, then moved to The Associated Press, LA Times Syndicate, Tribune Media, Creators Syndicate and (currently) Arcamax Publishing. She's been news writer/editor for ABC Radio Networks, on-air reporter for NBC, CBS Radio and, currently, for Westwood One's America In the Morning. She is a member of the Critics Choice Association in the Film, Documentary and TV branches and a voting member of the Black Reel Awards. For her AWFJ archive, type "Jennifer Merin" in the Search Box (upper right corner of screen).