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.