Writer/director Rungano Nyoni’s Zambia set tale of an eight year old “witch” seethes with themes connecting sociocultural traditions to a cruel, embedded chauvinism thriving amongst its community but despite seeming dynamic, the film’s themes are not efficiently addressed or assimilated enough to inform the central story. Nyoni combines social commentary with subtle comedy, building her feature debut into a work of confounding satire, yet its tone and perspective skirt unconfidently around issues that don’t (and should) command the narrative. This makes I am Not a Witch resound primarily as a sardonic swipe instead of the stark exposé its subject matter warrants, while remaining an absorbing and curious feature that’s still worth seeking out.
The story starts with a cackling “coven” of “witches” gesticulating in sync while bound by white ribbons (applied by local law enforcement to prevent them from flying away). Meanwhile a Guide escorts tourists around the grounds, providing us and them with context about the “witches” and their settlement. From there we meet Shula (Margaret Mulubwa): the young protagonist accused of witchcraft. Authorities gather, a chicken is sacrificed and Shula has to decide whether she wants to confess and be transferred to a desert camp, or be transformed into a goat. After a night of pontificating, a decision is made and the rest of the film charts Shula’s rise to an almost celebrity-like figure within her community which martinets try to capitalise on.
One would expect IANAW’s lawmen and politicians to be portrayed as monsters but instead they are portrayed as tyrannical oafs, lumbering wags or stooge antagonists, and their lampooning diminishes the significance of the issues at the story’s core. The plot sees blundering legislator Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), the Minister of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, adopting Shula in the hope of exploiting her popularity for financial gain by producing “Shula Eggs” (anyone?) and shamelessly plugging them on a chat show. While comedy combined with dramatic conviction may have worked well for the Zucker Brothers, the themes of corruption and female mistreatment are inappropriately warped by the manner in which they are presented (satirically) then peppered amongst political horseplay and obdurate buffoonery.
I Am Not a Witch is flawed, fascinating and disappointingly unpersuasive: partly due to its lack of a commanding stance, a slender narrative and ill governed humour but there are winning moments that derive from some character traits. Its candid facets are relayed with conviction and adorned further with arresting cinematography by David Gallego and a phenomenal lead performance from Margaret Mulubwa: conveying heartache, fear and innocence with staggering deftness for an artist of her age. These talents infuse IANAW in an unembellished reality with a commendable, visceral authenticity that hampers the ice cold, droll humour along with the themes and context in which it is presented. I Am Not a Witch will linger long in memories but in some cases possibly for all the wrong reasons. If it was comedy Nyoni was aiming for, maybe a more pertinent tale could have been told if Shula had decided she wanted to be a goat, because her life as a witch is nothing to be laughed at.