Film Review: I Am Not a Witch

This striking and original film by a Zambian-Welsh writer-director is a feminist allegory set in Zambia.
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Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch is an allegorical tale based on the filmmaker’s experiences in Zambia during a summer when there was little rainfall. Many were accused of sorcery that year, and most of them were women. This led the filmmaker to research the belief in witches in Africa, and that landed her in a “witch camp” in Ghana, managed by a family that for a hundred years have been the overseers of witches. In Nyoni’s film, set in her native country of Zambia, a nine-year-old girl is accused of sorcery, but she will not speak in her own defense.

Despite the skepticism of a young government officer who hears testimony of the girl’s wrongdoing, she is later sent to a witch camp comprised of elderly women. She is forced into hard labor with these women, and is humiliated by Mr. Banda, a corrupt official who compels her to don a ridiculous costume in order to preside over “trials” for petty criminals. Schooled by the jaded ladies of the camp, the girl is successful in this endeavor, and earns baskets of food and drink from grateful victims. The ladies name the girl Shula, which means “uprooted.” While Nyoni maintains her child hero’s point-of-view throughout I Am Not a Witch, this is not a movie for the faint of heart.

The writer-director’s story is ostensibly comic; great humor is derived from the clash between the national government and rural authorities. Nyoni also draws laughs from the intrusion of technology into village life, and from farcical characters, such as the witch doctor. When the movie turns to the buffoonish Mr. Banda, that good-natured jesting assumes an unpleasant edge. Like all clowns, Mr. Banda harbors a mean streak that is aggravated by his having to grovel to his bosses and a local female chief; a natural bully, he satisfies his desire for omnipotence by exploiting Shula, abusing his wife, and aiding the incarceration of the witches, women who have obviously been abandoned by their families.

Nyoni’s title articulates her uncompromising, feminist stance, and her characterizations of Mr. Banda and the male villagers explain how patriarchy plays out in Zambia, but it is in her sublime direction—lengthy close-ups, clever tableaux and skillful scoring—that the writer-director accomplishes a social critique so cinematic as to defy description. In a brilliant magic-realist touch, Nyoni’s witches are tethered to ribbons that unravel from large spools designed to limit their movement. In an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, the filmmaker explained that she was influenced by a fairytale about a farmer’s beloved goat (memorialized in a book by French author Alphonse Daudet, Monsieur Seguin’s Goat). It is tied to a tree to protect it from a wolf that roams the surrounding hills, but it yearns to be free.

Early in the film, Mr. Banda introduces Shula to the elderly ladies who are at first dismayed about accepting this sad, new member of their community. He fits her with the ribbon and spool, and places her in a shack for the night so that she may contemplate whether she will accept her new position as a witch. If she does not, Mr. Banda tells her, she will become a goat. Up to this point, Shula has had no home; bereft of parents, the prospect of being with the grandmothers apparently sways her decision to become a witch. Shula is not a talkative girl, nor has she ever smiled, but under the affectionate gaze of the elderly ladies, who briefly convince Mr. Tembo, their overseer, to send her to school, she begins to blossom. Shula is also an observant girl, and like most children she is sensitive to injustice.

Shula soon sniffs out Mr. Banda’s insincerity, but she finds it hard to resist his pretty wife, a former witch, who tells her to follow the rules so that she, too, can someday gain respectability and live in a nice house. When Shula is not helping in the fields, she travels with Mr. Banda in his van; once a man tries to break in to attack her, claiming that she is the witch who killed his brother. During an outing with Mrs. Banda, Shula looks on from the car as the woman is surrounded by a mob who remember that she was once a witch. Over the course of the story, Shula falls into despair, and is yanked from school by Mr. Banda because the village chief does not think her slaves should be educated.

Like the goat of the fairytale, Shula seizes her freedom and meets her fate. In the tension that builds from the nexus of the twin forces in I Am Not a Witch, of the old, oppressive patterns of rural life and the new, oppressive forces of a developing country, there exists the “uprooted,” who are compelled to choose between the dangerous pleasure of unfettered freedom and the equally frightening prospect of bondage. Through Shula’s quest for identity, Nyoni charts the creeping decline of a society into inhumanity, and if she is devastating in her critique, she is also faithful to her story. It is not a comedy.