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I Am Not a Witch


There has long been a paucity of quality films from African filmmakers appearing on UK shores. 54 countries, thousands of languages, and over a billion people (not including the diaspora), and yet it is represented annually by, at most, one or two films achieving any semblance of national distribution in the UK, whilst Marvel’s pompous tedium clogs up our cinema screens. Even our arthouses and independent cinemas, where one could reasonably expect to find these films, tend to show a plethora of staid British costume dramas with a glut of unimaginative French, German or Scandinavian works, polite and well-crafted, but often lacking in flair.

In this context, I Am Not a Witch is a welcome and marvelous break. written and directed by Zambian-born and Welsh-raised Rungano Nyoni. It tells the story of 8-year-old Shula (the utterly entrancing newcomer Maggie Mulubwa), who, after being accused of witchcraft in her village, is taken to a ‘witch camp’. Here, tourists come to take photos whilst Shula is bandied around Zambia by her ‘state guardian’,  Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), the camp’s owner, who has her adjudicating court cases and performing various services, for which the financial benefit goes largely to him.

Nyoni, directing her debut feature, has a remarkable control over the tone of her film. Though the general tone of I Am Not a Witch is tragic and downbeat, there is are moments of warmth and even moments of the bleakest, most bone-dry sense of humour, particularly in early exchanges; a village congregation accuses Shula of witchcraft to a bored-looking, sceptical official, with one man accusing her based on a dream he had of his arm falling off. Elsewhere, as Shula is expected to adjudicate a trial, the claimant bringing the trial to court can’t turn off his phone. This strain of absurdist satire wouldn’t feel out of place in a Luis Bunuel film, targeting as it does humanity’s ability to find ever more exasperating ways to torture and exploit itself. Closer to home, perhaps is Ousmane Sembène’s Xala, a classic satire from the Senegalese master, though his work is much more direct and incandescent in its rage where I Am Not a Witch seems to prefer to keep a seething distance.

The film’s central themes of exploitation by elites, patriarchal control, and a lack of individual freedoms are universal, but in rooting the film in such a specific experience – that of Shula’s ordeals as a suspected witch – Nyoni is able to craft a film that speaks to the oppression of women everywhere, the specifics extrapolating outwards. The sweaty insecurity displayed by Mr. Banda, as he squirms his way through TV interviews and meetings powerful figures, has easy parallels with, say, the careerist misogyny of pickup artists, but similarly the solidarity shown by Shula’s fellow ‘witches’ – they form a warm community around her of older maternal figures – speaks to a need amongst those who are under attack by larger societal forces to band together.

At the centre of it all is Maggie Mulubwa. Found after an arduous search for Nyoni’s leading star, Mulubwa has a striking screen presence, her eyes able to switch from determined fury to confusion to fear in a handful of frames. The camera clearly loves her (the cinematography is also exquisite, making frequent use of geometric shapes to pen Shula in, mirroring the film’s gradually enclosing claustrophobia, and is testament to the value of casting for faces in cinema. One can go a lot farther with a good stare than a thousand haughty words.

Smartly, the film avoids passing judgement on the cultural practices around witchcraft itself, preferring instead to target the societal pressures around the perception and treatment of women accused of witchcraft, again making sure that the subject matter remains culturally specific whilst the themes are universal. I Am Not a Witch is an exceptional piece of work, a confident feature debut from a writer/director who seems to have arrived with a clear sense of what her work represents and what its trying to say. On this evidence, there’s much more to come.



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