“I Am Not a Witch”: Feminist Tragicomedy from Southern Africa

“I Am Not a Witch”: Feminist Tragicomedy from Southern Africa March 17, 2019
Maggie Mulubwa, as Shula, in “I Am Not a Witch”

Directorial intent is a curious thing.  First-time feature director Rungano Nyoni claims that I Am Not a Witch was crafted as humorous satire, but freely admits that festival audiences weren’t in on the joke.  I guess you had to be there, with there in this case being Zambia.

Born in that south-central African country but spending the second half of her childhood in Wales, Nyoni cobbled together financial support from a multitude of countries to tell this story of feminine oppression.  Filmed in her homeland but inspired by a month spent in a witch camp in Ghana, its protagonist is a preadolescent girl accused of being a witch after showing up alone in a rural village.

Blamed for every minor woe – the bad taste of well water, the bad dreams of a village drunk – the unnamed girl is judged a witch by both civic and religious authorities.  Thus banished to a witch camp largely populated by old ladies, she is compelled to have a broad white ribbon attached to her blouse at all times, to prevent her from flying off and killing innocents.  One of the ladies name her Shula, meaning “uprooted” in the Bemba language that mixes fluidly with English throughout the film.

I Am Not a Witch’s director cites Yorgos Lanthimos and Michael Haneke as key influences, easy to see in her finished film.  Like that duo, Nyoni drops viewers into her story with no exposition.  She also isn’t afraid of unsettling imagery, as when the witches are carted around the countryside on the back of a flatbed truck, the better to contain both their persons and the massive spools holding their flight-prevention ribbons.

Witches and their ribbons, in “I Am Not a Witch”

Like Lanthimos in The Favourite, Nyoni’s musical choices are sometimes jarring, too.  I Am Not a Witch opens with a tourist van traveling to the witch camp, accompanied by Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.  A witch doctor dance is set to percussion-heavy jazz.

The transgressive spirit of the French New Wave also makes an appearance.  During the witch doctor’s divination of Shula’s witch status, the film freezes at two key instances.  As in Godard and Truffaut’s early work from the 1950s, this technique seems almost as much a brash attention-drawing statement as it is in service to the story.

Despite these influences, I Am Not a Witch is clearly situated in its place and time.  Indigenous beliefs mingle with Christianity, seen in the cross worn by one of the alleged witches.  Governmental structures are new and old, as the Minister of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs grovels before a local queen.  A TV talk show transitions from a rapper doing her rendition of a Kanye West tune, to an interview with Shula and her handler.

Lacking a familiarity with Zambia specifically and African witch culture generally, I had to use outside referents to make sense of the power dynamics at play.  Like the European and American witch panics of the 16th and 17th Centuries, the Zambians seem motivated by religiously-driven ignorance to scapegoat the feared femininity in their midst.  Their fear mixes with awe, as they also implore Shula to suss out thieves and bring rain to their dry land.  Yet the women are confined to a scrubland camp, while the male witch doctor is free to roam as he will.

With its scenes of witches being exploited for cheap labor in sun-bleached farmland, I couldn’t help but think back to America’s slave legacy.  With one of the younger witches a mistress to the aforementioned Minister of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, I recalled the American distinction between field slaves and house slaves, the latter sometimes complicit in plantation brutality.

Since Zambia lacks a thriving movie industry, the majority of the players in I Am Not a Witch are non-professional actors, including Maggie Mulubwa as young Shula.  None of the actors stand out as particularly exceptional, though they are convincing enough to perpetuate the illusion that we’re watching a real yet absurdist drama unfold.

Nyoni’s pacing is leisurely if not sluggish, so her film’s 93 minutes feel longer than, say, Never Look Away’s 3+ hour run time.  Even more problematic, I Am Not a Witch’s climax is unnecessarily confusing, a hit of the rewind button offering no clarification.

Nonetheless, this is a promising debut, intriguingly set in a culture that will be unfamiliar to most movie viewers.  Those curious to see how civic and religious structures oppress women in other parts of the globe will find much to ponder here.  And I’ll leave it to you to decide if I Am Not a Witch is more tragic or comic.

3.5 out of 5 stars

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