THE film I Am Not a Witch (Cert. 12A) is the first directed by the Welsh-raised Rungano Nyoni. She has set it in her native Zambia, where many people still turn to witch doctors when puzzled by strange occurrences. Other kinds of witches, though, known as tagati, secretly work to harm someone. Such accusations are frequently levelled against orphaned children least able to defend themselves. I Am Not a Witch, however, isn’t just about Zambia, but satirises all human fears of those who appear strange.
A waif (Maggie Mulubwa) seems to come out of nowhere at a time when the community is in crisis. Things are awry, chiefly lack of rainfall. Preposterous accusations are made against her. A man, with all his limbs, tells the local policewoman that the child cut off his arm. When questioned, he admits that it was a dream, but, even so, mud sticks.
She is dispatched to a witch camp, where the women name her Shula, which means uprooted. Her companions are tourist attractions. They are tied with white ribbons to stakes “to prevent them flying away”. The streamers are a persistent image throughout the film, recalling Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon (2009), in which a puritanical minister fastens one to any child whom he accuses of wrongdoing. It is to remind them to recapture their innocence.
Shula, because she happens to identify a thief correctly, is believed to have supernatural powers, ultimately confirmed by the advent of rain after a grotesque dance that she is forced to do. Paradoxically, these beneficial powers demonstrate only that her beliefs run counter to the community’s prevailing religion.
The government official, Mr Banda (Henry P. J. Phiri), who oversaw her deportation views Shula as a lucrative prospect. He goes on television with her in a manner not dissimilar to the kind of evangelists we see on Western screens. But even a degree of celebrity status works against her.
The film uses, possibly to excess, freeze-frames, lingering shots, and narrative leaps in telling its story. Gravity there is, but its deadpan humour rather than a head-on feminist critique is the more effective narrative tool. We plainly see how religious beliefs are enlisted to justify blatant misogyny — and not just in Zambia. Rungano Nyoni’s broader agenda runs alongside an interesting (and troubling) exposé of these African practices.
Lest British audiences begin to feel morally superior, this film provides uncomfortable echoes of our own culture’s persecution of anyone considered different. There are obvious parallels with — to seize on just one issue — the ways in which immigrants are often treated in our own country: useful to us for picking fruit or keeping the NHS functioning, but otherwise branded as dangerous threats to our social and economic well-being, and to be confined or removed from decent society by one means or another.
The justifications can stray into quasi-religious notions of sovereignty and xenophobia. As in Zambia, so in the UK, I Am Not a Witch bears witness to behaviour that ostracises, and even demonises, the stranger in our midst.