Filmmaker Rungano Nonyi was born in the central African nation of Zambia, went to Wales with her family when she was a girl, grew up there, and then as a woman returned to the land of her birth to write and direct films. Her first full-length feature is called I Am Not a Witch, and it uses a drily satiric approach to examine how traditional beliefs and superstitions, along with attitudes corrupted by colonialism and its aftermath, support a system of oppression against women. The story is so unusual that we’re not sure at first what is fact and what is fiction, and Nonyi uses this very uncertainty on the part of non-African viewers to indict a kind of detached tourist mindset that helps keep the corrupt system going.
In keeping with this radical approach, the picture opens with a tour bus arriving at a site where a large group of women, with painted faces, are sitting behind a fence. Each woman has a white ribbon attached to her back, each connected to a large spool, and the tour guide explains to the British tourists, who are taking photos, that these are all witches and that the ribbon keeps them from flying away. “If they didn’t have those ribbons, they could fly away, even to the U.K, where they would kill you,” he says.
Surely we are in some alternate reality. And indeed the white ribbons were a clever detail invented by Nonyi as a metaphor for the subservient position of women. However, there actually are real witch camps, in Ghana and elsewhere, which Nonyi visited for research before making the film.
We soon meet our main character, an eight-year-old girl, apparently an orphan, who wanders silently into a village. A woman turning a corner spills a pot of water when she suddenly comes upon the girl, and soon the little girl is at the local police station being accused by the woman, and a host of other villagers, of being a witch. When asked by the officer if she’s a witch, the girl doesn’t answer yes or no, and the fact that she doesn’t deny it as taken as proof that she is one. She’s sentenced to a witch camp, where the older women name her “Shula,” and she works along side them in the agricultural fields in what appears to be chain gang-like conditions. In the evening they do a dance where they salute and sing, “We’re soldiers for the government and we’re used to it. We’re used to it and we don’t get tired.” The film’s emotional tone is absurd, but the satire is not meant to be amusing exactly, but pointedly grim.
Eventually the local government official—a grinning, roly-poly con man named Mr. Banda—decides to make Shula his personal little witch, taking her along to trials to decide who’s guilty, or to convince a landlord that her magic will make the rains come. Shula is our point of view through most of the film, and as played by the haunting young actress Maggie Mulubwa, we experience her innocence and bewilderment in the face of this sinister belief system.
The words of the title, I Am Not a Witch, are also what we wish Shula would say. But the power of the men, and indeed the power of this entire confusing adult world, creates an overwhelming fear that prevents her from saying them. It will take something more than magic, this brilliant new film is saying, to break the spell of patriarchy.