In the Western world, when we hear about witches, we think of the Salem witch trials. Even with Wicca in the modern world and its empowerment of feminine energy through new age ritualism, there remains a stigma associated with witchcraft. It’s not for nothing that I’ve heard the Catholic church — the most notoriously patriarchal of religions — rail against tarot cards (full disclosure: this writer reads tarot). None of that can prepare you, however, for what’s at stake in the stunning allegorical film by Zambian writer-director Rungano Nyoni. Filled with a dry, ironic humor, I Am Not a Witch nevertheless is a disturbing exploration of how women can have their autonomy stripped away based on vilifying archaic notions that don’t seem to go away.
Within the notion of witchcraft is the power of women, which has been twisted into something threatening to be contained. In the case of this movie, women, most of whom look like they’re past their prime, sit behind a fence and are attached to giant spools of white ribbons reminiscent of those toddler leashes you might find a parent using at the mall. The opening scene features a tour guide taking English-speaking tourists to a pen holding these women who play menacing behind white makeup. The ribbons, it is explained, are to keep them from flying off.
Into this coven comes Shula (Maggie Mulubwa giving a subdued, heartbreaking debut performance), a girl of 8 years, who stumbles into a village alone. The locals accuse her of witchcraft after a woman trips while carrying water from a well and a man says he had a dream that he lost his arm while plowing his field after Shula flew overhead. His wife now plows that field, as he feels he’s cursed. So, yeah, right.
Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), getting scrubbed in a bathtub by his wife, receives a phone call about this new young witch. He’s in charge of managing these so-called “civil witches” that work as slave labor for the government. They become “government property,” following an archaic trial with a witch doctor (James Manaseh). What follows is one more disheartening situation after another for Shula. The film also doesn’t forgive the women around her who play along with this oppressive system.
Featuring an inventive use of soundtrack music that includes everything from Western classical music to free jazz and impressive widescreen images by David Gallego, who shot what this writer thinks was the best film of 2016 (Best Films of 2016 according to Hans), I Am Not a Witch is consistently compelling. Gallego handles close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots with the same gravitas as he does wide shots that capture the truck these ladies are transported on and their giant spools of ribbons. Nyoni, above all, never forgets an ironic humor that works in contrast to a very stark situation for these women, who have resigned themselves to this life. The film works as much as a black comedy as it does a cautionary meditation on the uphill battle of women’s rights when we all have to be reminded “time’s up.”
I am Not a Witch runs 93 minutes and is not rated. On Oct. 26, the film opens in Miami-Dade exclusively at Miami Beach Cinematheque. For screenings in other parts of the U.S., visit this link. Film Movement sent us an online screener for the purpose of this review.