The debut from Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni, I Am Not a Witch created quite the stir on premiering in Cannes. It’s the tale of a young orphan girl played by nine-year-old Maggie Mulubwa, who is accused by villagers of being a witch.
The tone is set by the comic police inquest into the girl with a man claiming that she made his arm fall off – hints of Monty Python and the Holy Grail spring to mind – but the fear is enough to call for the attentions of local government official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) to show up and take the girl away. Following another enquiry this time conducted by the Witch Doctor, the girl is tied with a ribbon to prevent her from flying away and given the choice of being a witch or cutting the ribbon and turning into a goat. Her decision to self-identify as a witch is as much to do with a longing for any kind of community to belong to as it is superstitious belief.
An old grandmother names her Shula – meaning ‘uprooted’ – and her face lights up as she finally sings songs. Banda has a truck – an orange truck, he emphasises – with which he transports a whole community of witches, using them essentially as free labour. As a sideline to this the witches are used as a way of catching criminals, something that Shula, after some initial hesitation, turns out to have a knack of doing. She is rewarded with a basket of goodies – gin and pillows – that she can then distribute to her group.
Nyoni walks a careful line. Although the absurdity of the superstition is real, Nyoni takes its seriously and though she ridicules the venal exploitation of Banda, she retains an enigmatic sense of magic. Shula is a powerful, almost mute presence throughout the film, and her steadfast glare is compelling. The adults who try to use her or guide her usually reveal their own intentions and prejudices. Mr. Banda’s wife was also a witch but has raised herself to respectability via marriage. “Always do whatever you are told whenever you are told without asking any questions,” is her rather depressing philosophy, but Shula witnesses that despite her large mansion, her regal furniture and SUV she is still an outcast from wider society, tied by a ribbon to the giant spool thread she keeps hidden.
Shula’s fame spreads to the extent, she and Banda appear on a TV show called Smooth Talk. This allows Nyoni to articulate some of the questions and criticisms that the audience might have, but Banda immediately shuts down any such thought: “That is a misuse of the freedom of speech.” And if we as audience members are becoming too snug in our scorn, there’s a party of white tourists who turn up to take selfies with the witches and watch the ‘traditional’ songs and dances.
Shula gets a glimpse of normal life when she is allowed all too briefly to go to school. Here she at last interacts with kids her own age, something that is as important as the lessons she enjoys. A witch however is not allowed a normal life and when the rains fail to come Shula becomes the scapegoat. Mulubwa’s performance gives I Am Not a Witch its furious heart, but Nyoni weaves her spells subtly and has produced a film of intensity, satire and grace.
John Bleasdale | @drjonty