I am not a witch
dir. Rungano Nyoni
UK, France 2017
The debut film from Rungano Nyoni combines tragedy with black humor, surrealism with almost documentary observation. I am not a witch is a shocking story about how prejudices, superstitions and greed can lead to an unnecessary tragedy. Worst of all, it’s a story based on facts to some extent.
Can witches fly? Are they responsible for all human failures and accidents? Will they turn into goats when they die? The average European will answer „no” to all these questions, but inhabitants of provincial parts of Africa may say otherwise. In Zambia, where the director comes from, such views are nothing special. Writing the screenplay was preceded by a research of the topic in her home country and in Ghana. Nyoni not only came across reports about allegations of spellcasting, but she managed to spend a few nights in so-called „witch camp”, very similar to one presented in the film. A main heroine also goes to this peculiar place visited by tourists, in which usually the older women abandoned by their families live.
Nine-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) first looked askance at the woman, who then stumbled and dropped a bucket of water. Then she chopped off one gentleman’s hand, which fortunately somehow grew back. The shouting crowd demanded a lazy policewoman to expel a girl from the community. Perhaps it bothers them that she is an orphan, maybe they need a scapegoat to blame her for their own stupidity and laziness. The will of the majority becomes fact and Shula left the village, becoming a member of the witch community. A young, taciturn person stands out against adult women with age. However, before she settles down permanently, her new guardian, Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), decides to use and earn from the supernatural abilities that the child was „rewarded” with.
I am not a witch it’s made up of a series of scenes that could easily be found in the classic work of Monty Python grupy. Mr. Banda perfectly finds himself in this convention. This obese, corrupt and greedy politician / a businessman, drags a girl „for a fee” to television in a full outfit of a witch, tells her to point out criminals from the line of suspects at the police station or promises to she can bring rain. Fortunately, the film does not fall into the grotesque. On one hand, this is due to great acting, because Maggie Mulubwa has not only deep, wise eyes, but magnetising charisma and sadness hidden under the silent face. On the other hand, surreal elements perfectly harmonise here, like a large spool with a white ribbon, which witches carry (if it is cut off, a woman turns into a goat) or a huge mask in which Shula hides. There is something terrifyingly tragic and dark in this fairy-tale vision. Magical realism is perfectly emphasised by sophisticated cinematography – many frames are real poetry, but it is hardly surprising, since the DOP of nominated for an Oscar movie Embrace Of The Serpent is in charge. The ingenious use of music, from the pop song by Estelle to the classics of Vivaldi, shows how sensitive are authors in building the ambivalent mood of the movie.
Runoni Nyoni film is at the same time an apt political satire, a feminist voice on the status of women in Third World countries and a warning against the catastrophic consequences of situations where xenophobia and parochial thinking outweigh any rationalism. I am not a witch also works great as an attempt to show a certain cultural phenomenon and as a poetic allegory. Small accusations can be made to the fact that some of the scenes last too long than they should, violating the pace of the story, and the sublime form sometimes takes control of the narrative. The ending is also risky, which will probably divide the audience. However, these are small failures that should not spoil the screening and a discovery of a new, promising director talent on the map of European cinema.
I am not a witch premiered in the Directors’ Fortnight section at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival. Film won BAFTA in Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer category for Nyoni and producer Emily Morgan.