I Am Not a Witch is Rungano Nyoni’s provocatively titled first film, which had a Paris screening at the 2017 Amnesty International Human Rights Film Festival. It depicts the scarifying progress of a young girl accused of witchcraft in a rural African country, presumably in southern Africa, although this isn’t entirely clear; but the vagueness lends the film a fable-like quality.
|The poster for I Am Not a Witch.|
One can’t help thinking of Harry Potter, although I Am Not a Witch reminds us that throughout the history of the persecution of alleged witchcraft, it was overwhelmingly women who were accused. The film brings home the oddness of the Rowling franchise: although written by a woman (her gender muffled if not masked by those famous two initials), the book’s hero is male, as are most of its main characters. In Nyoni’s film, all the alleged witches are female.
Shula is a child, but the others tend to be elderly, bringing home that other object of witch persecution - the aged, when they’re not in a protected family context. Instead of riding around on brooms and playing flying games, the African witches are tethered to ribbons wherever they go, so they won’t escape (otherwise they may turn into goats).
Furthermore, instead of being comfortably ensconced in a Hogwarts-like institution and making friends, Shula is trundled from place to place to work. She’s adopted by the older women, but still feels achingly alone. Eventually a father figure appears, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), a jovially corrupt government official who exploits the women’s labour. When Mr. Banda observes how Shula acquires some celebrity after using her supposedly clairvoyant abilities to discover a thief (who may or may not be guilty), he takes her under his wing. He protects and cozens her, but also uses her newfound celebrity. Here the film takes a turn to satire, which broadens its concerns but loosens its focus on Shula.
|The loneliness of the outsider: a scene from the film.|
All the actors in I Am Not a Witch are natural and convincing. Maggie Mulubwa as Shula has a stark presence, and is as assured as Quvenzhané Wallis, the young star of Beasts of the Southern Wild. The other witches appear to be non-actors - like figures from a documentary rather than a fiction film.
If the movie is a bracing corrective to pop fictions about witchcraft, it also makes us think of the reality of people being accused of practising witchcraft. On the African continent and in India, this has become an improbable 21st-century outrage. Many women have been lynched or hounded from their homes because they were thought to have done supernatural harm to their alleged victims. This is in addition to a veritable melting-pot of the irrationally persecuted: albinos (whose body parts are supposed to have magical powers), so-called heretics (e.g. minority Muslim sects in Turkey and Indonesia) and so-called pagans (such as the Yazidi in Iraq).
I Am Not a Witch touches on these. There’s a harrowing scene where Mr. Banda’s trophy wife (also a witch) goes shopping at a supermart and is hassled by a crowd that looks like it might turn violent. The director also offers a glimpse of a couple of albino children. But she doesn’t follow up on these, and more importantly she doesn’t take the central story of Shula to its logical conclusion. “I am not a witch” turns out not to be a desperate plea or a defiant cry, but merely a young girl’s assertion of her selfhood. We expected more. Aside from easy satire of politics and pop culture, there’s an ostensibly tragic development which somehow makes tragedy seem facile.
|Transporting the "witches" in I Am Not a Witch.|
Nyoni’s direction is smooth, whether for panoramic shots of the African landscape or arresting close-ups of her characters. For a first film, there’s not a ragged sequence in it. This is something we miss at times, for the stumbling moments in a neophyte director’s work are often the cracks that let in genuine emotion. The lack here is underlined by the classical theme music that turns certain scenes into sentimental interludes.
In the end credits, we see that aside from the writer-director (who was born in Zambia, grew up in Wales and now lives in Portugal) and the principal cast, almost all of the technicians and other participants are of European origin. The sources of financing were also European. The production and distribution of the film - ditto. If what has been sold as an African work of film art is in fact overwhelmingly European, it’s no surprise if it’s been co-opted into a conventional, slick Western aesthetic and vision. Ultimately, I Am Not a Witch may be less an exploration of a social phenomenon in some parts of the world than a parable about itself.
Production: Arte Film Prize, BFI Film Fund, Clandestine Films, Film 4, Soda Pictures, unafilm. Distribution: Pyramide Distribution (France).
Dimitri Keramitas is a Paris-based writer and legal expert.