Release Date: 20 October 2017 (UK Release)
Running Time: 92 minutes
Language: English, Bemba, Nyanja and Tonga
Rungano Nyoni’s debut I Am Not a Witch offers a bold, satirical take on witchcraft in modern Zambia.
The film opens with a glimpse of a Zambian “Witch Camp”: the “witches” sit in rows with white painted faces, while white tourists arrive by bus and view them like animals in a zoo. The surreal fact that such camps do exist in modern Arica provides the material for the film.
8 year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is accused of being a witch, her crime as minor as being present as a local woman falls over, dropping the water she is carrying. As the police interrogate the witness in front of gathered mob her story is backed up by a man claiming Shula cut off his arm with an axe – the fact this happened in a dream explains away the fact he still has both arms.
Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), a corrupt Public Official, soon gets involved in Shula’s case and, having given Shula the option of confessing her witchery or be turned into a goat, she finds herself tied to a spindle by a long white ribbon like with other witches and working in the fields. Banda quickly turns to using Shula as a supernatural judge and jury in the solving of crimes, making a tidy profit for himself and earning gin for the witches. An enterprise both sides benefit from, aside from young Shula who faces harassment as she moves from village to village.
As the mainly mute Shula, a self-assured and confident Mulubwa plays it absolutely straight, despite the obvious satire being portrayed. The cinematography plays over ribbons and dry earth as a gentle counterpoint to the satire, ensuring the serious subject matter being portrayed isn’t overly ridiculed. One minor misgiving is that sometimes lingering a fraction too long, stretching contemplation into langour.
Clearly witches don’t exist, but here the film offers just enough room for doubt as the film nods towards a surreal, supernatural edge; albeit such belief among the protagonists is often reserved for getting rid of unwanted elements of society, namely elderly relatives, as opposed to a sustained belief system.
Phiri’s clumsy portrayal of clownish Mr Banda doesn’t sit comfortably but Muluba’s clinical performance, perfectly placed satire and camera offer much to enjoy throughout. Chaotic, original and brave this directorial debut offers much to be excited about.