I Am Not A Witch - Guest Review

Posted 31 October 2017 about Black History Month and I Am Not a Witch.

I am not a witch

I Am Not A Witch is the stunning debut feature film from Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni. Part-political satire, part-comedic farce, this bizarre fairy tale defies genre and emerges as something wholly difficult to define.

The film opens with a woman carrying a bucket of water. Suddenly confronted by a silent, stone-faced child (Maggie Mulubwa), the woman drops her bucket and flees. The child is then taken to a local police station, where she stands accused of witchcraft. A sceptical policewoman listens to the outlandish reports with deadpan indifference, and so begins this dark comic tragedy. Reminiscent of a scene from Monty Python, one accuser recounts to the crowd how the child had dismembered him with an axe, while standing before them with all limbs fully intact.

Despite the farcical nature of the claims made against her, the child (later named Shula) is taken to a witch camp and given a choice: become a witch and live a tethered existence, or cut her ribbon and be turned into a goat that may be killed for supper. Shula decides to join the camp and is welcomed by the elderly women who form the rest of its inhabitants. Each woman is tied to a large spindle with a white ribbon, a feature that apparently stops them from flying away. We quickly learn that these women live an extremely restricted life, used as both a grotesque tourist attraction and a slave labour force.

Although it was filmed in Zambia, the setting is intentionally ambiguous, and Nyoni manages to create a world that feels both familiar and alien. Tourists come to see the witches, photographing them with the latest technology, never considering for a moment that they are posing for selfies with slaves. Refreshingly, Nyoni manages to avoid falling into the trap of portraying a backwards and savage Africa. Her film is more concerned with where the old world meets the new and the strange intersection of superstition and modernity, as shown in one particular court scene where Shula is made to identify the criminal with her ‘witchcraft’, but proceedings are repeatedly interrupted by the piercing midi ringtone of the plaintiff.

The humour is at times somewhat uncomfortable and I would recommend audiences to leave their sensibilities at the door. The jokes are as dark as the subject matter. Even in the most ridiculous moments, the threat of violence looms in the background. Nyoni does not shy away from a political message and makes clear that these traditions are rooted in misogyny. Still, she manages to hold on to the air of slapstick typical in African comedies, expertly treading the lines between comedy and tragedy.

This film is an impressive feat, bursting with talent and originality. Maggie Mulubwa gives an outstanding performance as Shula. The enchanting stoicism of her face and her long penetrating stares are captivating. The cinematography is unsurprisingly spectacular, coming from the unique talent that is David Gallego. He masterfully captures the beautiful desolation of the African desert, a pathetic fallacy echoing the harrowing circumstances in which the witch camp exists. This film is bold, mesmerising and highly recommended for cinema lovers. Nyoni is a rare talent with a strong cinematic voice, and an undoubtedly bright future.

I Am Not A Witch has been showing since 20/10/17 - check the final screening times here to make sure you don't miss it! These screenings have been part of the Showroom's Black History Month season. This year, the season has been created in collaboration with Sheffield Melanin Festival, and includes a range of multi-arts events including seminars, workshops, an art exhibition, documentary and fiction films.

Roisin McDaid

Roisin has a BA/Hons in Drama and Theatre and is an aspiring writer. Twitter: @roshmcd Read more posts by Roisin McDaid


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