With a premise heavily rooted in political context and witchcraft, it was inevitable that I’d be immediately drawn to the allegorical and intense film, I AM NOT A WITCH. The combination of fiction and researched reality proves to be powerful in this tale of mythology and misogyny for Rungano Nyoni’s directorial debut.
Written and directed by Rungano Nyoni, I AM NOT A WITCH presents a deep story focusing on the corruption of an African government that profits off of women wrongly being accused of witchcraft. Taking place in Zambia, the story follows Shula (Margaret Mulubwa), a young girl removed from her village due to notions of witchcraft, and is sent away to live amongst a commune of elderly witches run by corrupt government official Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri). She is left with the choice of remaining a witch and following orders, or leaving, which instantly turns you into a goat. Shula stays, and begins a journey of enslavement, brief fame, and realization.
For a directorial debut, I AM NOT A WITCH covers many professional grounds that make up a uniquely intense piece of cinema. Nyoni incorporates realistic dramas alongside farcical superstitions that creates a complex and intellectual story, while also housing brief stints of comedy. All of these aspects are heightened through effectively used cinematography that produces scenes that are colorful yet lethargic. The stark white from the witches ribbons (shackles) dance against the dusty plains and offers great juxtaposition for the brightly painted orange truck that takes them to and from their mundane tasks. With scenes and storytelling like this, all while encompassed in a unique score ranging from Vivaldi to tribal singing, shows an immense voice within this up and coming director.
While there were a couple of intentionally comedic moments, I found most of the film to be very sad, and at times gut-wrenching in nature. The treatment of these wrongfully accused women makes you feel a sense of hopelessness and despair; they remain trapped and contained for governmental profit, as their lives waste away partaking in absurd tasks. The scenes involving the women being held at the “witch camps” also strikes a nerve, as you see these gawking tourists taking pictures of the witches for fun, as if it were a human zoo. You feel degraded for them, as poor Shula sits sadly inside of a giant, paper mache-looking head, while tourists ask her if “taking a picture with them” will make her feel better. As the story progresses, it increasingly starts to sink in what is actually happening to these women.
With such a powerful premise that Nyoni has created, I AM NOT A WITCH demonstrates unique filmmaking that contains heart, along with sadness and the absurdities of folklore. Are they actually witches? Most likely not, as such things do not exist, but the hint of chattering goats at the end may have you thinking differently. Its elements like these that make up great storytelling, leaving audiences eager to see what else Nyoni has in store for future projects.