It’s 2017, and witch hunting is still alive and well. At least, in certain parts of South Africa.
In her debut feature film, Wales based writer/director Rungano Nyoni explores the unusual topic of witch hunting with a deft hand, wry humour and surreal shots of Zambia. Opening with a scene of tourists visiting a ‘witch camp’, snapping photos and kids pointing excitedly at the seated women, the tone is set for the rest of the film – a cheeky look at the strange phenomenon of alleged witches existing within the modern world, with ownership handed over to the government and exploited for fun and profit.
Based off real research Nyoni did, I Am Not A Witch centres around quiet, 8 year old Shula (Margaret Mulubwa), who has been accused of witchcraft a few weeks after entering the village. Forced between accepting her lot or being turned into a goat and killed, Shula naturally picks the former, and is shipped off to the witch camp to become part of the tourist attraction. But under the wing of government official Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phili), Shula rises above her fate, dolled up and costumed in what is assumed to be ‘witchy’ attire as she becomes an arbiter of crime and punishment, and sent on a media tour to become a regional celebrity while her brethren are left to toil in the fields.
Nyoni’s script and story are razor sharp blades, cutting deep into issues of modern enslavement and misogyny in South Africa. Mr Banda’s wife, a former witch herself, appears happy and a self-proclaimed ‘woman of respect’, yet this all comes crashing down as members of the public ridicule her as she steps out for groceries, and is punished by Banda for her failure to teach Shula to perform a rain dance. A mother is ‘outed’ as a witch by her own daughter, who sticks with her terrible boyfriend out of desperation. As ridiculous and outdated as some of these beliefs are, there is something fearful about the way the government has commodified these supposed witches’ power, reduced to spectacle and absurd daily activities, and these women are weakened, shadows of their former selves and slaves to the alcohol they’re blessed with, living on what little they have for fleeting moments of happiness.
Branded with physical burns on their foreheads brings to mind the painful history and sometimes continued practice of female circumcision in South Africa, while Nyoni’s choice to tie down each witch with a length of white ribbon on their back reminds viewers of traditional witches of the past, and is a strong visual image against the otherwise arid landscape. The camera at times focuses purely on the spools that these ribbons are attached to before panning down to show the women underneath, and these in turn become symbols of slavery,
Shifting from stoic silence to pensive thought in an instance, Margaret Mulubwa delivers a truly powerful portrayal of Shula, and at times, feels like the wisest character even amongst the adults. Burdened with a world weariness well beyond her years, yet managing to light up when she finds joys as simple as befriending Mr Banda’s wife, or attending school, there is an electricity that colours Mulubwa’s performance that aligns the audience with her from the very beginning, understanding her position as a victim of circumstance, and saddled with problems too big for her tiny stature to solve. A quiet fear spreads across her face as she desperately attempts to summon the rain to quell the anger of her superiors.
Beneath the absurd exterior of I Am Not A Witch lies a tragic arc, a contrast that emphasises the true darkness that lines this masterful film. I Am Not A Witch is a rare film that amuses as much as it is poignant, and paints a brief but powerful portrait of modern female suffering, told through the innocent eyes of a child, no doubt leaving audiences in shock long after its final heartbreaking scene.
I Am Not A Witch plays as part of the Perspectives Film Festival at the Gallery Theatre, National Museum, on 28th October 2017 at 3pm. Tickets available here