I Am Not a Witch, the dazzling first feature of writer/director Rungano Nyoni, is pitched uneasily between comedy and tragedy. One is never quite sure whether to chuckle at the superstitious absurdity of this magical-realism tale, or weep with despondency over the repugnant institutionalized misogyny it depicts. A fictional story rooted in African reality, this Zambian-set stunner, now playing in limited release, is the sort of satire designed to make you choke on your laughter—when, that is, you’re not staring in wide-eyed disbelief and horror at the many crazy ways in which sexism continues to thrive, unabated, in parts of the world.
Like some bizarre docudrama version of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, Nyoni’s commanding film (the U.K.’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at next year’s Oscars) sets its unreal scene from the get-go, with a prolonged shot from inside a bus as tourists arrive at a remote site, all parched land dotted with clumps of scraggly, barren trees, to see a large group of women sitting on the ground behind a fence wearing identical blue outfits and sporting white paint on their cheeks and around their eyes. This, it turns out, is one of Zambia’s many witch camps, and these older women are its witches, posing on this sunny afternoon for visitors who are eager to take pictures of these supposedly supernatural figures. As the tour guide explains, the witches are attached to long white ribbons that end in giant spools in order to prevent them from flying—because otherwise, they “usually fly, to go and kill.”
It’s a harrowing vision of old-world insanity put to oppressive practice. And after a title card, Nyoni, a Zambian native who emigrated to Wales as a child, cuts back to these witches’ faces, in a slow-mo pan during which they snarl, growl and shake their hands like zoo animals performing for their patrons.
From this opening salvo alone, it’s apparent that something is terribly amiss here, and that only becomes clearer when an unknown young girl (Maggie Mulubwa), wearing an out-of-place T-shirt emblazoned with the message “#bootycall,” is spotted by a woman carrying water, and promptly brought to authorities and accused of being a witch. The reason for this charge? As one adult tells the less-than-convinced female cop on duty, things haven’t been right in the area since she arrived. Then another man steps up and says that the girl chopped off his arm, only to confess that he just dreamed this took place (which is still proof, apparently!). No matter the silliness of such allegations, the girl’s refusal to admit or deny that she’s a black-magic woman—instead, she faces this madness with staunch silence—convinces regional government official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) that the 9-year-old is, in fact, a witch.
Thus the kid is sent to live at a camp, where one elder gives her the name “Shula,” which in Zambian means “uprooted.” No sooner has Shula been welcomed into the community and given customary tribal scars on her face—as well as informed that cutting her ribbon will turn her into a goat—than she’s whisked away by Banda to a municipal trial held at a dusty outdoor “court.” There, while wearing a constricting outfit and ceremonial headdress, Shula is asked to use her otherworldly powers to determine which of the suspects has committed theft. Given that, you know, she’s not actually a witch, she defers to her elders, who via cell phone give her loads of nonsensical advice (Choose the nervous looking one! Or the one looking up! Or the one looking down! Or the one who’s darkest!). Yet when she randomly fingers one man, and he shortly thereafter turns out to be the culprit, her credentials are firmly established.
All is not well with Shula, however, as I Am Not a Witch movingly elucidates. A prisoner of a system that demonizes women, segregates them from the rest of the population, and then has them toil on gigantic farms—all when they’re not presiding over criminal trials or trying to bring much-needed rain to the arid countryside—Shula is an innocent victim. And an isolated one too, given that she’s decades younger than her compatriots, who are either aged and prone to sitting around drinking gin (which, it turns out, is a favorite local currency), or middle-aged and interested in the wigs sold by a visiting woman, who touts their pop-star styles as “Mandonna,” “Rahinna,” “Minny Mikaj,” “Sim Kardashian” and “Beyancey.”
In a subtly expressive performance, newcomer Mulubwa employs a stoic, morose countenance to convey Shula’s bottomless well of hurt, loneliness, shame and fear. As in the revelation that this Zambian kingdom is run by a Queen who approves of enslaving her female subjects, I Am Not a Witch underlines the wretchedness of its milieu through one surreal sequence after another. Those also include a TV talk show taping during which Banda, with Shula by his side, is grilled by an irate caller for denying the girl an education, as well as an earlier encounter between Shula and a witch doctor whose means of determining whether she’s a witch or not involves slitting a chicken’s throat, and then, as he dances about, seeing whether the bird dies inside or outside a chalk circle he’s drawn on the floor.
That Banda and his government believe and sanction such lunatic persecution—all while crassly exploiting the subjugated, like when Banda tries to sell TV viewers witch-blessed “Shula eggs”—is jaw-dropping. The tension between this barbarism and the modernity amidst which it exists is ever-present, throwing the former into sharp relief. Matthew James Kelly’s score accentuates those contrasts, with strident orchestral compositions and cacophonous noise creating a dissonance that’s then exacerbated by the fact that his eclectic music often doesn’t match the action at hand. Meanwhile, David Gallego’s cinematography, marked by extended takes and sudden shifts into hypnotic slow-motion, has a stark, arid beauty that amplifies one’s sense of Shula’s alienation and misery.
I Am Not a Witch uses humor like a knife, cutting through niceties and let’s-hear-from-all-sides equivocation to expose the ugliness of Zambia’s misogyny, which is also found in Banda’s marriage to a reformed witch (whose “freedom” isn’t very free), and in Shula’s brief attendance at school. Whether categorized as awfully amusing or amusingly awful, Nyoni’s masterful film casts a severe spotlight on an unforgivably intolerant practice, and the tragedies, both large and small, that are its invariable—if not outright intended—outcome.