Year Released: 2017
Distributor: Film Movement
Running Time: 92 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: Mwansa the Great, Dreams of Dust, The Scarlet Letter
-I Am Not a Witch is the full-length directorial debut from Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni. She’s also made films such as 20 Questions and Listen.
-This film won 3 awards at the British Independent Film Awards 2017 and won an award for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director, or Producer at the British Academy Film Awards (the UK equivalent of the Oscars).
-Three languages were used in I Am Not a Witch: English, Chewa (Nyanja), and Bemba.
-There’s a cameo from Zambian rapper Brisky who shows up during the talk show segment scene where she spits a few bars for the crowd before Banda and Shula are interviewed.
Now here’s a country that I didn’t think would get representation from Film Movement let alone many other distributors: Zambia. I’ve heard things about this South-Central African nation, but I had never seen a movie from that particular country. I’m glad there’s representation on here, but there’s a serious issue that happens in different African countries: witchcraft. Maybe not so much in the major city, but in rural areas, there are cases even to this day of practitioners or people being accused of being witches where they get exiled from society. Witch trials are actually a thing, and director Rungano Nyoni was inspired when she visited her home country and Ghana to see how people can be accused of using spells against others and made an original screenplay out of it.
Is it a bewitching watch though?
I Am Not a Witch takes place in the Zambian countryside away from Lusaka (the capital and largest city). There’s a mysterious eight-year-old girl who shows up from out of nowhere which scares the local townfolk and many of them accuse this individual as a witch. They take her to the local police station and she is silent during the whole interrogation. The situation gets so bizarre that they bring in a witch doctor to sacrifice a chicken to gauge whether the girl is a witch or not. She eventually believes that she is a witch and is forced to live in a witch camp who are tied to ribbons supposedly to prevent them from flying, work on a farm, and are subject to being a part of a human zoo of sorts where tourists can take pictures of them. The other witches call the girl Shula and the government official who oversees the camp (Yes, there’s an actual witch unit with the authorities) named Mr. Banda who uses the girl’s alleged magic to solve trials and to bring rain especially after a drought happens locally. Shula accepts her role as a witch, yet she still remains quiet during the blatant exploitation of her.
This was a unique film with the subject matter. Sure, the concept of an outsider being labeled as something undesirable isn’t new, but the modern concept of witches in rural Zambia is something I didn’t expect. No, this is nothing like Witch Hunter Robin and is far more realistic. Zambia is a majority conservative Christian nation and witches have been ostracized and abused in different ways regardless if they did anything or not. Shula was certainly a broken character with her quiet nature and having a shyness that’s criminally vulgar in society’s eyes (Yes, I just referenced The Smiths since that song was covered in The Craft and Charmed). Mr. Banda was sleazy in his dealings with the witches by getting giant spools of ribbons to constrain the witches and using Shula to help the government in questionable ways when it’s not proven if she’s a witch. Seeing the scenes of the witches being looked at like exotic animals by the tourists (notice how at least half of them are European) was just sad how they lost their dignity behind metal fences. No one should ever be treated like that. Besides that, there’s a dry satire going on that challenges society’s perception of those accused as witches and even when the Zambian “muggles” if you will harbor superstitions like rain dances or pouring gin on doorsteps or cars to prevent evil spirits. While there is exploitation from the government officials even the other witches were no better when Shula gets them money. One scene has the older witches getting fancy wigs with censored styles like “Maddonna”, a blue wig called “Raihanna”, or they long for other styles such as “Sim Khardashian”, “Nikky Manaj”, or “Biyoncay” so they can feel beautiful. They were using Shula to get those things and it also shows them buying into foreign standards of beauty (could this be a subtle potshot against neo-colonialism?). In addition to the storytelling and characters, I was impressed with the filming and acting. The production was very crisp and well-shot with earth tones, cool hues, and natural greens throughout. The acting was mainly done by non-professional actors like in several neorealist films, but each person sells their roles with more talent than most big-name Hollywood stars. Maggie Mulubwa had her debut role as Shula. Despite not having much dialogue throughout the film, you can believe and feel her internalized depression and morose look on life after being mistreated in silence. She rarely smiles on certain occasions and even that happiness was fleeting. The ending was certainly impactful in its own right despite some of the ambiguous elements, but I can see some people getting hit in the feels really hard.
I Am Not a Witch has some hexes of its own which prevent me from liking it as several other critics. While Shula was a likable character, there were so many glaring plot holes with her. Where did she come from? Are her parents still alive? Why is she so painfully silent most of the time? Did she ever get called a witch prior to going to that one village? None of those questions were answered throughout the film which did frustrate me and it could’ve positively added to her character development. The cinematography was great, but there was some aliasing in some of the nighttime scenes which distracted me a bit (this seems to be an issue with some Film Movement DVDs even with movies I really like). My biggest issue with I Am Not a Witch was the stereotypical imagery of the witches and witch doctors. When Mr. Banda gets a witch doctor early on in the film, he’s wearing a tacky feathery hat and outfit, beheads a chicken in a white circle, and starts dancing around. The imagery made me shake my head as I half expected him to sing David Seville’s “Witch Doctor” song. Yes, I’m talking about that stupid “oo-ee-oo-ah-ah-ting-tang-walla-walla-bing-bang” song that ALMOST makes “What Made the Red Man Red” and “We Are Siamese If You Please” from Peter Pan and Lady and the Tramp respectively look politically correct by comparison. I get that they were trying to incorporate African witchcraft elements into the movie, but someone like Rungano Nyoni should really know better (keep in mind that she was born in Lusaka, Zambia, and lived there until she was nine) when it comes to a scene like that. I know you don’t see the witch doctor characters that much, but that left a bad taste in my mouth.
Nyoni’s debut full-length movie isn’t this magnum opus as the elite reviewers have claimed it to be, but I didn’t think it was horrible. I Am Not a Witch did try to satirize elements of witchcraft and how society deals with suspected witches, but some parts of the satire were more effective than others. The acting was certainly a highlight with multiple characters. I do wish the film would explain more about the Shula character since she was riddled with plot holes. The stereotypes about Africa do show up at certain junctures which made me really uncomfortable and uncalled for. If this was directed by a white filmmaker, people would call this movie racist, and rightfully so, and I wish Nyoni would’ve used some of those portrayals differently. All in all, I thought I Am Not a Witch was slightly above average at best. Just good, but nothing that enchanted me.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1-2 points if you like deadpan satirical films.
Subtract 1-2 points if you hate stereotypical images of Africa.
-Biting satire with the “human zoo” and superstitions
-Aliasing on the DVD
-Gaping plot holes with Shula
-Witch/Witch Doctor imagery gets problematic
Final Score: 6/10 points
Content Warning: I Am Not a Witch doesn’t have that many objectionable things, but the subject matter would be better for teens and up. There’s the chicken sacrifice where that bird is offed offscreen, but there is blood splattered on the ground. Shula is subject to traditional scarification early in the film when she’s accepted into the witch camp. She even relives herself in the latter part of the film while working in the fields. Alcohol is used with multiple characters. The most disturbing aspects are the witches being used as a human zoo for tourists and when some witch doctors abduct Shula by literally dragging her body via the ribbon spool to bring her back to the camp in the middle of an outdoor class. There’s also a death scene that gets very depressing at the end.
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. I Am Not a Witch is property of Rungano Nyoni and Film Movement. The movie poster is from IMDb and is property of Film Movement.