Rungang Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch opens in the backseat of a small bus as it transports passengers through the sparse Zambian countryside. Against the frenzied score of Vivaldi strings, the bus rambles along the uneven terrain toward an enormous sculpture of a cartoonish human head; its eyes wide and searching, its mouth agape. The manic score cuts out as the bus comes to an abrupt stop and the passengers disembark, all of them black except for one young, white female. We watch through the bus windows as these passengers-cum-anthropological tourists observe over a low metal fence a group of women arranged on the ground, as if on display at a human zoo. From each of the women’s backs spools a long white ribbon that billows in the wind; a harness, we hear the guide tell the tourists, that is used to keep the women from flying away.
So begins Nyoni’s surreal and tragic social satire on womanhood and voyeurism, set in contemporary Zambia, and based upon the director’s experience visiting witch camps in Zambia and Ghana. I Am Not A Witch is at once comic and nightmarish. Some may find parallels with the stilted style and deadpan humor associated with the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, as well as the recurrent theme of voyeurism explored in Michael Haneke’s films. Long-takes, tightly composed frames and protracted silences populate the film and, much like Haneke’s work, require the spectator to question their role in the viewing process. I Am Not A Witch is both structurally and emotionally challenging, frequently positioning the viewer in an uncomfortable no man’s land between absurdist comedy and profound tragedy. It is also a film of immense visual beauty and directorial prowess. It is difficult to believe that I Am Not A Witch is Nyoni’s debut feature, for the film possesses an experimental and visionary confidence that belies its director’s fledgling status.
We encounter our nameless child protagonist for the first time on a desolate dirt road as she watches a village woman trip and spill her water bucket across the arid land. The woman looks back in horror at the child, played by a truly commanding Maggie Mulubwa, who observes the scene with an unnerving stoicism. She is dressed in a raggedy, sack-like t-shirt emblazoned with the incongruous stitching #bootycall; a foretelling of the absurd and unsettling comedy that pockmarks the entire film. The child quickly becomes the receptacle of the village’s overactive imagination and is accused of witchcraft. Nameless, rootless, and arriving to the village unbeknownst, the child—later named Shula—becomes the scapegoat for the villagers’ plight. In a world as desolate as that of I Am Not A Witch, people are quick to source superstitious reasoning for the cruel reality of their lives.
A local government official turned unscrupulous opportunist, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), is notified of Shula’s spurious trial and conviction. He swiftly plucks Shula as new fodder for his witch camp, which we observed in the film’s opening sequence. Mr. Banda offers Shula the choice to either declare herself a witch and join the group of elderly and exiled women, or to cut her white ribbon and be transformed into a goat. Shula attends a nighttime gathering of the witches as they are coached by Mr. Banda on how to help the young girl live as a witch in ‘cooperation with the government.’ The witches perform a welcoming song for Shula, singing one of the most surreal lines of the film; “We’re soldiers of the government and we’re used to it. We’re used to it and don’t get tired.” The recurring presence of government involvement in the witch camps, highlighted by Mr. Banda’s frequent assertion of his status as a ‘government official,’ suggests these superstitious beliefs are sustained at a systemic level.While the world of I Am Not A Witch frequently feels like a farcical nightmare, it is also imbibed with a profoundly unsettling hyper-realism.
We follow Shula as she navigates the bizarre landscape of her capricious life sentence, paraded around villages by Mr. Banda in her role as the judge of local thieves and the premonitory forecaster of rain. She is welcomed and protected by the witch community and, in one particularly poignant episode, Shula is gifted a blue, plastic horn by one of the women, which she uses to listen longingly to the distant sound of schoolchildren. Later in the film Shula attends her first class following pressure from the public; under government rule, and Mr. Banda’s reluctant adherence, all children must receive an education in Zambia. We see Shula break a rare and captivating smile as she is welcomed by her fellow classmates, and she joins in their game of Chinese whispers as they shyly pass around the words ‘chocolate biscuit.’ Moments of joy and connection are rare but beguiling in the film, and return the oftentimes mystical and surreal world of I Am Not A Witch to its critical center. Sustained shots of Shula in silent and pained isolation, set against the baked and blanched Zambian countryside, never allow the viewer to break with the film’s tragedy.
Nyoni’s anger is a palpable presence in I Am Not A Witch. Despite the recurring farce that drives much of the film’s episodic and detached narration, Nyoni’s socio-anthropological and feminist critique is insistent. I Am Not A Witch is, of course, culturally specific, but it also speaks to a broader, persistent narrative of female silencing, scapegoating and othering; of the female body as a space upon which desire and repulsion are writ repeatedly. Intriguingly, the Western tourists who participate in the grotesque spectacle of the witch’s public display are both young women. One peers in at Shula huddled inside the gaping mouth of the human head we observe in the film’s opening sequence and brazenly takes a selfie with the child to ‘cheer her up.’ The crowd on the television show ‘Smooth Talk,’ where Mr. Banda exhibits Shula as a celebrity witch, almost exclusively consists of women. Women-as-objects and women-as-voyeurs coexist within the film in a complex relationship that foregrounds the role played by modern technology and celebrity culture in perpetuating female oppression.
There are a plethora of elements in I Am Not A Witch that will leave the viewer both intrigued and baffled. Simultaneously mystical, nightmarish, and folkloric, I Am Not A Witch is a provocative allegory for contemporary womanhood and the female body. The film grounds its comic and magical inflections in a visionary portrayal of the realities and embodied experiences of female subjugation. It is a film that should leave you feeling unsettled and uncertain, and in doing so pose vital questions concerning the absurdity of womanhood today.