Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is a young girl of mysterious parentage who appears in a Zambian village. The villagers accuse her of witchcraft as an excuse for their misfortunes and she is found guilty and banished to an outcast village populated with other “witches”, elderly women tied down with ribbons to stop them from flying away. Shula is quickly taken under the wing of and exploited by government official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), who sells her services to bless food and pick out supposed criminals from police line ups. As the only child “witch” in the community, will her innocence finally be recognised, or will the strength of these superstitions override all reason?
An entrant in the London Film Festival’s First Feature Competition, I Am Not a Witch has already garnering high praise from across the globe, and with good cause. The film is a remarkable debut that brings to the fore the suffering of victims of outdated, yet state sanctioned, superstition by highlighting its utter absurdity. Writer/director Rungano Nyoni has perfectly captured this absurdity by making all the officials and accusers appear as buffoons, bringing a lot of comedy to the unbelievable situations Shula finds herself in. There are shades of Abderrahmane Sissako’s Timbuktu, or even Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove, in the realisation that even the most horrifying truths can be so ridiculous that the most natural reaction is to laugh.
Although emphasising this nonsense, the film keeps it all contained in beautifully captured cinematography and controlled framing. Although filmed in Africa, there is no concern by Nyoni and director of photography David Gallego to capture or linger on landscapes and vistas, preferring to focus on Shula’s young and innocent face and the ribbons trailing behind her and her fellow “witches”, which always dangle down from just out of frame as a constant reminder of their plight.
All the performances are excellent, particularly Henry B.J. Phiri whose comic timing turns Mr. Banda into one of recent cinema’s most dangerous fools. But above all is Maggie Mulubwa as Shula, who is a revelation. One is reminded of Quvenzhané Wallis in Beasts of the Southern Wild, only where Wallis’s performance is extroverted, Mulubwa’s is all internal. She barely speaks throughout the film, but watches on silently as each injustice is inflicted upon her, a mix of innocence and knowingness imparted by her youthful features. It is a stunning performance.
I Am Not a Witch is a remarkable film that manages to balance absurdity and outrage in a perfectly observed character piece. Nyogi deploys comedy with precision, making the characters’ superstition a figure of fun, but then quickly follows it up with a shot of Shula’s face or a demonstration of intolerance which brings the reality crashing in. Through the bizarre behaviour we are constantly reminded that these are real lives being victimised and that the only thing more ridiculous than a government official trying to sell eggs “blessed” by Shula on a local TV talk show, is that society always seems to be addicted to marginalising those that are deemed different.