I Am Not A Witch (2018)
SHOULD I SEE IT?
Selected to compete for next year’s Best Foreign Language Film, I Am Not A Witch is a striking look at fear of femininity and the concept of witch camps…in present-day culture.
Rungano Nyoni’s debut is one of the more bold and ambitious debuts in recent history. There’s a reason this film has received dozens of awards on the festival circuit within the last year.
Mixes humor, striking visuals, and a moving performance from 9-year-old Maggie Mulubwa.
The shifts between comedy, drama, and suspense can be jarring and may cause some viewers to wonder just what Nyoni is going for with her film.
Though I enjoyed the film, perhaps we need to work on how to build to an ending. The abrupt ending makes sense, but comes in a rush and will leave folks scratching their heads.
If you are unable to get into a cadence with the film, the deliberate pacing can make these 90 minutes feel pretty slow.
Giving us a fascinating and, at times, confounding look into another culture and world, the BAFTA-award winning I Am Not A Witch is a truly unique story, set in modern-day Zambia. Though it is prone to diversion and jarring novelty, Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature shows us how femininity is feared and how antiquated ideas behind those fears can paralyze people’s better judgment.
The heart of the film, and much of the story’s perspective, lies with Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), a 9-year-old girl who observes a villager tripping and falling while walking with a water jug. Believing that the girl forced her to trip maliciously, she is branded a witch and says nothing in her defense. Off camera we learn that during an interrogation, she would neither confirm or deny the accusations levied against her.
Shula is then relocated to a community of witches (a very real thing in some African communities), forced to wear a long white ribbon, designed to keep her from flying away, and brand ceremonial face paint to identify her to anyone who comes upon her. A government official, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) ensures the transition goes smoothly, even if he is something of a bumbling fool when it comes to his job efficiencies.
Nyoni’s film is spiked with humor, absurdity, but also elements of sadness and despair. Her script may seem all over the map, but her focal point is the often silent, reserved Shula – and her withdrawn temperament and mute nature, as her emotions intensify the longer she is isolated from her home village.
Released in the United Kingdom in 2017, and just announced as their selection to compete for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award in 2019, I Am Not A Witch arrives in America in the fall of 2018 - in the wake of #MeToo, #TimesUp, Women’s marches, and the important, ongoing debate over gender equality in the work force.
I Am Not A Witch does not explicitly tackle those issues, but it need not have to in making direct and ferocious commentaries on marginalization and exploitation. Through the spectacle of Nyoni’s debut, we are reminded of the ways with which male-driven and male-dominated societies invent ways to demonize, single out, and make females appear as lesser.
The film looks authentic, almost documentary-like at times, from cinematographer David Gallego, whose use of close-ups, intercut with longer, fixed gazes on what Shula sees and experiences in the world truly leaves an impact on us as viewers.
The humor is perhaps I Am Not A Witch’s most interesting and fascinating wrinkle. Typically, a film with this message and weight lacks the courage or conviction to be anything other than a dense, perhaps even bleak story of oppression and dominance.
Instead, we have moments where an older witch is taken to task for not teaching Shula the proper way to orchestrate a rain dance. Zambian hip-hop culture is shown. Mr. Banda books Shula on a television call-in show, which goes badly when Shula refuses to speak. Banda employs Shula’s “gifts” to identify a thief. Random music cues exist in often the most curious of times and situations.
Yet make no mistake: I Am Not A Witch is gripping and unforgettable.
Through the fantastical observations Nyoni seeks and explores, the movie simmers with palpable agitation and bubbling bitterness. Shula’s circumstances, as a 9-year-old girl, are unfathomable and maddening. That Nyoni spent time in Ghana, embedding within a “witch camp” only amplifies the insane realities of what she brings before us.
CAST & CREW
Starring: Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri, James Manaseh, Nellie Munamonga, Innocent Kalakula
Director: Rungano Nyoni
Written by: Rungano Nyoni
Release Date: September 7, 2018