Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s new film is a poignant and powerful story, exploring what happens when misogyny and belief in the supernatural meet
On a dusty road in Zambia, a woman falls over. The pail of water on her head spills everywhere. She turns around to see a girl silently looking at her. The child is taken to the police. She is accused of witchcraft.
So begins the story of 8-year-old Shula, who is sent away to a ‘camp for witches’. A spindle of ribbon is placed on her to keep her from flying away. She is warned that should she cut it, she will turn into a goat.
Cast out by society and stigmatised by all those around them, the majority of her fellow ‘witches’ are elderly women, forced to spend their days carrying out manual labour – while being peered at by tourists as if part of a human zoo.
Having placed her in the camp, Government official Mr Banda decides to take advantage of Shula’s supposed powers of witchcraft. What follows is a series of farcical events, depicting the continued exploitation of the child.
She is asked to identify thieves from a lineup, to partake in drought-ending rituals and in one particularly sharp and poignant scene, is paraded on a TV show, where having been described as a witch, the TV host asks ‘but what if she is just a child?’
In August this year Zambia’s Human Rights Commission stated that it was ‘deeply concerned at the growing pattern of killing older persons on suspicion of witchcraft’, and while the country’s ‘Witchcraft Act’ prohibits anyone from ‘indicating any person as being a wizard or witch’, this phenomenon continues today.
Zambian- Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni, who wrote and directed the film, spent a month in a witch camp in Ghana. As part of her research, she interviewed women there and in Zambia who had been accused of witchcraft.
The end result is her debut offering “I Am NOT a Witch”. It’s a bold, clever and challenging watch, illustrating the continued conflict between the modern and the traditional. Archaic beliefs, allegedly steeped in tradition, are used to kill off another inherited system; that of looking after elders. The camp is largely populated by elderly women, who are likely to have been either widowed or unmarried. Rather than being a burden to family members these women are conveniently branded witches and cast away.
The film itself is beautifully made. David Gallego’s cinematography unrivalled, which coupled with the soundtrack, provide an eerie feel to proceedings, the aesthetics giving greater depth to the narrative.
The cast and performances are flawless, Henry B.J. Phiri is hilarious as the self- important and overbearing Mr Banda, while Margaret Mulubwa’s portrayal of a largely expressionless Shula is mesmeric and captivating, that she is not a trained actress would perhaps leave many shocked.
Rungano Nyoni said her husband had taken ‘a photo of an interesting girl in the North of the Country’. Despite auditioning many girls for the role of Shula, a search was carried out to identify the ‘girl in the photo’ and Margaret Mulubwa was found.
This is not just a story about stigma and superstition, this is more than that. It is symbolic of the everyday struggles women face. Those struggles result from the burdens and blame placed upon us as a result of misogyny and patriarchy.
The need for society to control women and their choices, reflected in the film by the spindle of ribbon placed upon the back of the ‘witches’, is a reminder of just how threatened society can be by the thought of female power.
We discover Mr Banda’s wife is also a witch, who pointing at her wedding ring, says she is no longer at the witch camp because she has ‘respectability.’ The usage of Shula, a child, to tell the story, illustrates just how early on these lessons are taught.
Perhaps this aspect of the film can be best summed up when Shula says ‘I should have chosen to be a goat, at least goats can roam around freely.’
In the background scenes at the camp, women can be seen working, for as so often, womanhood and exploitation go hand-in-hand. That most of the women at the camp are elderly exposes the reality of a global society where, in many places, the elderly, particularly elderly women, are considered at best an inconvenience and at worst a problem which must be eradicated.
Yet despite all this, the film is also indicative of the power of women. The bond betweenShula and her fellow ‘witches’ is heart-warming, as are the scenes where we see a more rebellious side to her. Above all, this is a story told by a black, female, director, and that is a positive.
The mark of a good storyteller the ability to deliver a narrative which keeps the viewer hooked yet preserves the sensitivity of the film’s subject. It is in this that Rungano Nyonyi has excelled.
Satire, humour, eccentricity and clever dialogue evoke a range of emotions. Many scenes are bizarrely entertaining and yet ultimately the film, and the many serious themes it covers hit like a punch in the stomach.
This is an important story, a necessary story. Above all, it’s a story by a woman about women; and that in itself is reason enough to go watch it.
Catch I Am Not a Witch, in cinemas and on demand now.
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Samira Sawlani is a writer/ journalist specialising in the politics, economy and development of East and Horn of Africa. She also runs MD’s social media platforms as director of audience. A holder of an MA in International Studies and Diplomacy from SOAS, she is also an avid reader of fiction and poetry. Aside from journalism, she has also worked in the emergency humanitarian relief and refugee care sector. @samirasawlani
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