I Am Not a Witch
2018, NR, 93 min. Directed by Rungano Nyoni. Starring Maggie Mulubwa, Henry Phiri, Nancy Murilo, Gloria Huwiler, Travers Merrill.
REVIEWED By Danielle White, Fri., Oct. 12, 2018
It’s not difficult or unreasonable to mistake I Am Not a Witch for a documentary. Writer/director Nyoni spent some time in real witch camps in Zambia and Ghana, and the cast is mainly composed of non-actors who are credited without character names and simply by category: Witch, Blind Child, Villager, etc. Boiled down by function, so many faces in a crowd. The story focuses on Shula (Mulubwa) – her name, bestowed upon her by one of the older witch women, meaning “uprooted.” She's a nearly mute orphan who seemingly appears in the village out of thin air. She is accused of being a witch because “things that never happened before” start happening, and people don’t trust the water anymore, and some man had a dream, so she’s really causing a fuss. This child. After a witch doctor’s “test” determines her witch status (positive), she is sent to a witch camp, a real place that is part forced labor camp, part old folks’ home, part tourist attraction, where the accused witches are tied to giant spools of cloth ribbon so that they cannot “fly away and kill people.” (The ribbon spools are more of a metaphor, an all too poignant one in this modern age of men in power attempting to control, restrict, and limit women’s bodily autonomy. The visual representation is spellbinding.) Shula never confirms or denies being a witch, making the title of the film a strange choice, though that affirmative defense through history has largely fallen on deaf ears and too many women have died to prove it. In short, it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.
The filming style mirrors the inherent contradictions within a culture that fully believes in witchcraft. Shula is taken around by a government official (Phiri, in a role that is granted a comical aspect only because he is bumbling rather than malicious) to solve crimes and other disputes. They believe she can talk to spirits. They believe she can open the sky and make it rain. There’s a heavy sense of theatricality to the spectacle; it’s performative, like in any type of ritual. Scenes often cut abruptly, especially when there’s music. Chanting singsongs or frantic, piercing classical is played during what would otherwise be a quiet close-up. The audience is then jerked to silence. The camera sometimes mimics a dragging motion; Shula is literally dragged by the ribbon, and dragged in a higher sense, too. Action that is more violent in nature – the killing of a chicken, the beating of a thief by a crowd – often occurs offscreen, exercising the imagination. If you like things to be spelled out, this is not the film for you. Even the final, brutally tragic conclusion is implied in a blink-and-you-miss-it linking of images that again cuts sharply to the next scene: one of the strongest images in the whole movie, and thankfully one that is not void of hope.