I Am Not A Witch - a magical debut of haunting and humorous originality



After a Q and A session with the film's director at Bristol's Watershed, Epigram's Deputy Online Editor Lucy Thompson reviews the strikingly original film. 

Set in Zambia, I Am Not A Witch begins with the seemingly unremarkable incident of a woman dropping a bucket of water.  This results in the young Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) being hauled into the police station and accused of witchcraft, due to the highly comical accounts from the villagers.

The parasitic government official and witch-hunter, Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri) tells her she must to decide ‘whether to be a goat or a witch’, and is brought to a witch-camp. For Welsh-Zambian director, Rungano Nyoni this is her first feature film. While Shula’s Zambian witch-camp is fictional, Nyoni drew inspiration from modern-day witch camps in Ghana, staying in one of the oldest camps.

By no means does the film try to debunk ‘magic’, which Nyoni is agnostic about. The film is a mystical and satirical fable about the wider themes of misogyny, community, captivity and complicity. Like the other witches in the camp, Shula is tethered to a long white ribbon to stop her ‘flying’, and is ostracised from mainstream communities.

In a poignant scene later in the film, she enjoys a fleeting moment at school, before she is dragged back by her ribbon. Nyoni uses the motif of the white ribbon, rather than the chain to emphasise, to a degree, how the witches are complicit in their own captivity and subordination.

The film uses satire to examine the rules society places on different groups, with the absurd depiction of the camp, in order to make a wider point about women who are controlled. However, Nyoni makes it clear that it is not just men who are guilty of misogyny.

there is the uneasy interplay between the tragic and the comic, revelling in the cruelty of the Zambian sense of humour
This concept is presented in the character of the Queen, who is instrumental in Shula’s captivity. Nyoni said the character of Shula was inspired by her grandmother who retaliated against the stringent requirements placed on women in Zambia, and ‘broke rules constantly’.

Throughout there is the uneasy interplay between the tragic and the comic, revelling in the cruelty of the Zambian sense of humour. There were many instances where I wasn’t sure whether I should be laughing or recoiling at the horror of Shula’s circumstances.

Mr Banda is the comic-villain of the film, answering the call about Shula from a bubble-bath and trying to sell supernatural eggs on a TV chat show. A makeshift courtroom he sets up to find criminals, using Shula’s ‘powers’, is continually interrupted by an embarrassing ring-tone. The film thrives in this absurdity and unpredictability.

Rule breaking and unpredictability is translated in the soundtrack. Rather than use African music, Nyoni chose to use the dramatic and grandiose sounds of Vivaldi and Schubert. When the film neared its sombre close it was also surprising to hear Estelle’s ‘American Boy’ pumping through a man’s headphones.

While the cinematography is beautiful, one of my only criticisms of the film is that the landscape shots of Zambia linger too long, and some scenes became a little stagnant. The film is, however, a highly original and intriguing debut from Rungano Nyoni.

The last screening of I Am Not A Witch is today, Thursday 26th, at Watershed: at 15:45 and at 18:20

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Lucy Thompson

Current Deputy Online Editor and previously the Online Living Editor.