I Am Not a Witch (2017)

Review #1,474

Director:  Rungano Nyoni
Cast:  Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri
Plot:  Following a banal incident in her local village, 8-year old girl Shula is accused of witchcraft.  After a short trial, she is found guilty, taken into state custody and exiled to a witch camp in the middle of a desert.

Genre:  Drama
Awards:  Nom. for Camera d'Or (Cannes)
Runtime:  95 mins
Rating:  Not rated (likely to be PG13 for some mature themes)
International Sales:  Kinology

An exciting, new voice has emerged in African cinema: Rungano Nyoni.  She’s a Welsh-Zambian writer-director, and in her bracingly original feature debut, the intriguingly-titled I Am Not a Witch, she shows great promise and an assured visual style that is not afraid to find beauty in the natural—the expansive landscape of Zambia—and the material—literally rolling white cloth that binds each ‘witch' to its source, like a leash on an animal.  

The community of witches, who are all elderly women and ferried on a lorry, are allowed to walk around with limited mobility, giving us a visual cacophony of intertwining white cloths.  I have never seen anything like it before.  Presented at a pace not uncommon in arthouse world cinema, Witch’s contemplative tempo is balanced by its sharp sense of humour, articulated in a mix of local dialect and English.  

The main character, a young girl who is unceremoniously judged to be a ‘witch’, becomes a special tool that a corrupt town official uses to his advantage.  Bragging about her mystical powers of foresight, he abuses her innocence to boost his credibility—but to much incredulity.  

Rungano’s work has an ethno-political slant to which it asks the question: does superstition, and by association, the rites and rituals of traditional beliefs, have a place in Zambia?  And if so, should they be exoticised?  And if not, shouldn’t they be exorcised?  

One sequence early on, in particular, sets forth how deeply rooted some of these superstitions are: a man (with all limbs intact) claims that he had chopped his own arm off because of the ‘influence’ of the young witch.  In another, a woman is physically attacked and verbally disparaged by a small mob because she is seen as a ‘witch’.  All these allude to the human incapacity to understand those whom they think are different from us, whether or not it is racially or politically motivated.

Rungano’s film is an eye-opening journey to a country that most of us aren’t familiar with.  Although the film has some un-ironed kinks that are typical of a debut feature, it largely works.  The use of music is also fascinating, with Rungano opting for a blend of classical music (to slow tracking shots, suggesting a homage to Kubrick, and even, Paul Thomas Anderson), and the occasional percussive sound design (reminiscent of Birdman (2014)).  With this, I’m sure cineastes can look forward to whatever Nyoni will be cooking next in her sophomore feature.  

Verdict:  This bracingly original feature debut about a community of witches in Zambia announces Rungano Nyoni as an exciting new voice in African cinema.



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