I Am Not a Witch is the story of Shula, a seven year-old orphan who, upon being accused of witchcraft by local villagers, is bound to a white ribbon to prevent her from flying away, and given a choice: cut the ribbon, and transform into a goat, or admit to being a witch, and be detained indefinitely in a government-run witch camp.
From this absurd point of departure the story unravels much like the taut, weighty yet enchantingly elegant spools of ribbon that confine the accused witches. Mixing bleak realism with satire, and modest moments of warmth, I Am Not a Witch is an unforgettably powerful debut feature from Welsh-Zambian director, Rungano Nyoni.
The film’s humour is brutal, yet carefully orchestrated: Nyoni laces her tragicomedy with moments of irony and bathos, gradually intensifying the dizzying preponderousness of the seemingly essential role that witchcraft plays in local affairs. After, unsurprisingly, choosing to accept her accusation, Shula is whisked around the region by a government official, becoming the designated ‘civil witch’ used to settle court cases, forced to perform rain dances, even taken on a talk-show to promote a range of witch-branded products.
But despite the alienating, twisted logic of the situation, Nyoni never loses sight of the seriousness of real-life witch accusations that still plague modern Africa. Instead she deploys her cinematic gags, such as the unexpected bursts of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, in order to jolt the viewer into recognising the incongruity of Shula’s suffering, refusing to romanticise. Dark humour is nestled in subtext, veiled just enough to administer the audience an unsettling dose of doubt. Indeed, while the film’s tension is built upon nervous silences and raw threats of violence towards Shula, Nyoni’s wordless directorial commentary invites the sharp scrutiny that makes the film compellingly political, without becoming didactic.
But I Am Not a Witch also goes beyond the issue of witchcraft to shed a harsh light on the anachronistic remnants of the distorted superstitions that grow through the cracks in the corrupt bureaucratic structures of our postcolonial world. It is a rich and revelatory insight into opportunism and the exploitation of fear, the relevance of which is unlikely to dwindle any time soon.
Ellen Kemp is a recent graduate (and aspiring film writer) having studied French and Film at the University of Bristol, and soon starting an MA in Film and Screen Media at Birkbeck, University of London.