Having toured the festival circuit this year with a debut at Cannes last May, before its screenings in the London Film Festival’s First Feature Competition, Rungano Nyoni’s off-kilter and razor-sharp debut I Am Not A Witch has, much like protagonist Shula, made quite a name for itself over the past few months.
I Am Not A Witch follows the story of Shula, a young stranger in a small village who, after a banal accident is branded a Witch. After being given the choice to join a traveling Witch camp or be turned into a Goat, Shula is quite literally pulled into a world of manual labor, kangaroo courts, and most potently, oppression. This isn’t a heavy-handed sob story of female oppression; I Am Not A Witch is in deft and subtle hands with Drama Centre Screen Acting MA graduate Rungo Nyoni, a Zambian-born Welsh-raised filmmaker who has come to attention in the past with several BAFTA-nominated short films. I Am Not A Witch deals with something far more culturally specific and despite the absurd humor scattered throughout the narrative, hints at a banal, insidious, and heartbreaking core.
The detachment of the cinematography brings an obliquity that places the viewer in the role of observer, much like the tourists who visit the witch camps for selfies. This detachment can be frustrating at times, the open-ended story meandering at a pace and in a direction that refuses to give any easy answers.
That being said, the sad truth is that I knew nothing of the real-life Witch camps of Ghana where thousands of accused women live so as to avoid lynching and mob punishment. This meant I had to research afterward, a testament to the curiosity sparked by the film. Due to this, I Am Not A Witch was a more symbolic experience rather than one focusing on a specific injustice.
I could see how this could disengage audiences who were unaware of this real-life issue. However, this leaves me confident that the film won’t go over the heads of those with less knowledge of the setting. I Am Not A Witch touched on wider themes of a woman’s role within a patriarchal society and the sheer narrow-minded paranoia and relinquishing of independence which so often threatens faith-based groups of any type.
Shula played by Maggie Mulubwa is a captivating and unreadable screen presence. She seems to soak in her world, a young sponge who is being molded by the world around her and like with the best satires is a passive protagonist pulled through the story at the whim of those around her. Other stand-out performances come from her government-sanctioned manager and captor Mr. Banda, played by Henry BJ Phiri, a charismatic and comedic performance which like much of the film’s surface, masks something deeply more disturbing. Nancy Murilo also brings a spark to her role as an ex-witch turned housewife.
Though the narrative lacked a degree of punch, the meandering and dreamy pace lets us explore the story world and rules alongside the protagonist, letting its captivating cinematography from David Gallego breathe. The sense of detachment can leave you disconnected from proceedings at times but more often than not, this worked in its favor and was a bold directorial choice for first-time director Nyoni, insisting on doing things her way rather than spoon-feeding audiences.
I Am Not A Witch ends up being a hilarious, tragic yet joy-filled debut with a potent message about the loss of independence and the fear of the other.