Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch is a surreal deadpan satire.
No Harry Potterby Alexa Dalby
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
I Am Not a Witch starts as a deadpan satire of African traditionalism – but also how it’s exploited by Africans. It opens with overweight, white, camera-toting tourists being taken round a ‘witch camp’, where lines of women in blue uniforms and face paint sit like wildlife sighted in a safari. Whether or not they are ‘witches’, it’s a strikingly touristic commercial opportunity.
In the village, an eight-year-old orphan, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is accused of witchcraft because she stared and then a woman drops the container of water she was carrying on her head – an unthinkable occurrence. She never speaks to confirm or deny it. The police officer (Nellie Munamonga) hears the far-fetched denunciations of neighbours impassively and escalates the matter upwards to the lazy, self-important local government official Mr Banda ( Henry B.J. Phiri), who sees a young ‘witch’ as being eminently exploitable. He himself lives with a glamorous ex-witch (Nancy Murilo), who tends to his needs. Shula is sent to the ‘witch camp’, where it seems that most are older women who have been put there by their families as a way of getting rid of them and avoiding the cost of feeding them. In the new life with the witch duties he imposes on her, Mr Banda hires her out on a rough-justice career of picking out the guilty party from identity parades and as a rainmaker for the drought-stricken crops.
I Am Not a Witch is also a feminist parable. ‘Witches’ – all female – are attached by harnesses to long white tapes to stop them flying away, which unwind from giant spools that they have to carry with them everywhere. It’s a vivid visual metaphor. Shula is told that if she cuts the tape, she will turn into a goat. That’s the choice she’s faced with.
Zambian-Welsh writer and director Rungano Nyoni for her first film has created a surreal parable that encompasses in its satire the corruption of traditional beliefs by both traditional rulers and modern African bureaucrats, inherent misogyny and the powerlessness of women. Her style is to use long takes, sometimes held where nothing is happening in shot but offscreen you can hear the action continuing in a way that’s already been implied. It creates a sense of blustering incompetence that threatens a chaos that always manages to be avoided as society reasserts itself. A long trailer like a carnival float where ‘witches’ sit impassively is a recurring image. Cinematographer David Gallego has shot the arid landscapes in washed-out, almost pastel colours that give a sense of a land that’s in decline. There’s a deliberate ridiculous incongruity between the mundanity of the visuals at times and the florid classical music track that accompanies them – Vivaldi and opera – but also Estelle’s American Boy. Nyoni’s film has narrative ambiguities but it’s a striking debut.
I Am Not a Witch premiered at the 70th Cannes Film Festival, screened at the 61st BFI London Film Festival and is released on 20 October 2017 in the UK.