I Am Not a Witch is the debut feature film of the filmmaker Rungano Nyoni. Nyoni was born in Zambia and moved to the UK with her family when she was nine years old. Her short films made after she graduated from the University of London earned her a formidable reputation, and this new feature has launched a promising international career in feature filmmaking, having played at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival (in the Directors’ Fortnight), winning Nyoni a BAFTA, and garnering a number of prizes at the British Independent Film Awards. I give this background merely because I’m so pleased to report the successes of an African emigrant in the art-house filmmaking world, and because I derive great pleasure from anticipating the work to come from young artists whose early works are already so strong.
I Am Not a Witch, which is mostly in Nyanja, with English subtitles, follows an eight-year-old girl (Maggie Mulubwa) who first goes without a name and is later named Shula (“uprooted” in Nyanja), and who is accused by some of the angry villagers around her of witchcraft. Shula is totally alone, afraid, and wholly uncertain of herself, and does not deny the villagers’ accusations, opening her to exploitation by local leaders who claim to protect witches. Shula is taken by the government official Mr Banda (Henry Phiri) to a camp for witches, where other accused women are kept practically as slave labourers and tourist attractions. A witch-doctor judges whether or not they really are witches (note that when a man can show capabilities of witchcraft, he enjoys a position of power) and, if they are, they’re fitted with harnesses to which ribbons are tied, keeping them within a tight radius around the camp’s truck that transports them from their beds to wherever the government requires them to be. Shula is singled out for witch-related work by the government: She divines guilty culprits from a line-up of criminal suspects and brings rain to the fields of farmers who pay her handlers, and is rewarded with favours such as biscuits and gin. With the help of Mr Banda’s wife, she grows in self-assurance, but also gains awareness of the grim situation she’s in and the abusive systems of power that brought her there.