Looking at the world through Zambian reality, the first-time filmmaker Rungano Nyoni presents us with a satire that’s much more universal than it appears to be on the surface.
Sent to a Witch camp after an unfair accusation, Shula needs to decide how her life will look like. “Now it’s up to you whether to be a goat or a witch,” a government official tells her, placing the ribbon on her back. The little orphan chooses the latter – but she also chooses the life of exploitation and unfair treatment from almost everyone that surrounds her. I Am Not a Witch, a debut feature from Rungano Nyoni, takes a look at the misogyny, exploitation and problems without resolutions through the lens of Zambian customs.
Mostly elderly women, with white smudges of paint on their faces, sit in neat rows. Each of them is tied to a ribbon and dressed in almost identical clothes. The tourist that has just arrived gives them a long, pitying look, twisting on her feet nervously. Sometimes, tourists reach out for their camera and snap a picture of the women sat behind the provisional fence. The pictures like these reappear again and again throughout the Film. Another tourist questions Shula, stuck inside a strange construction, on why she looks depressed. “Come on, do you want to take a picture with me? Do you like taking pictures?” she asks, smiling for Instagram and snapping a selfie. Culturally insensitive tourists keep on creating their “experiences” of Africa, and the director holds these snaps on the big screen deliberately, asking us to stop and think. And it’s a way for Nyoni to criticise the outlook she thought a lot of people have when watching films about the continent: it’s African reality, therefore it just has to be perceived as something stereotypical. However, she goes out of her way to show that it’s not just about the reality she depicts.
Alternatively, she subverts this stereotype and tries to approach it with humour. A few minutes into the film, we see the local court – the policewoman takes the statement of a witness, and although she doesn’t seem to believe any of them, she invites a local leader to judge. When he brings Shula to the camp, spewing propaganda that sounds exactly like any politician anywhere in the world before the elections, making us feel that the film uses the setting to explain some much broader truths about the world to the audience.
And it’s a shocking kind of funny. We laugh at a satire, something that’s an expertly observed image of reality taken with a pinch of salt, but we can’t shake off the underlying darkness that the movie presents us with. Henry B.J. Phiri presents us with a caricatural character of a government official, who seems to spout strange opinions all along. But it’s difficult to forget that he’s also brash and self-serving, using the little girl to appear on TV and receive approval from the people.
However, it’s difficult to escape the symbolism of exploitation: Shula doesn’t really have a choice regarding what she can become. She’s become a witch because of other people’s judgement and a whole lot of bad luck; the options she is given aren’t liberating. If she cuts the ribbon, it won’t change her position; we quickly figure that out watching the official’s wife giving Shula life advice about respectability and fighting the locals minutes after. If she decides to “reveal” that she’s a witch, she’ll have to agree to work for others for free and give up a chance to live normally. But is picking freedom an option for her at all?
Although film merges the dark realism with wry satire, some of the scenes seem a little too long; the pace of the film is sometimes a bit uneven, stretching some of the less important moments unnecessarily. That, on the other hand, never overshadows the darkness that this feature presents us with – and certainly leaves us with a lot of anticipation for Rungano Nyoni’s next step.
I Am Not a Witch premiered in the UK at the 61st London Film Festival. The film will be released on the 20th of October 2017.
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