A young, reticent girl (Margaret Mulubwa), is accused of practicing witchcraft and questioned before the police in a small Zambian village. Though the evidence is insufficient, her shy demeanor and the confusion surrounding who she belongs to makes her a ripe target. This persecution opens I Am Not a Witch.
Zambian director Rungano Nyoni was inspired by the witch camps in Zambia and Ghana, telling The Independent, “they are very disorganized and sparse and run by different chiefs.” The opening scene is ridiculous, as tourists pull out their phones, mesmerized by women surrounded by male guards and tied down with white ribbon to prevent them from “flying”. In 93 minutes, Nyoni presents a balanced perspective on how ancient superstitions surrounding gender have seeped into modern-day. In doing so, she brilliantly and beautifully captures the bizarre insanity of our heroine’s reality. At the heart of it all is the film’s humor, which is dark and dry. It often leaves the audience uncomfortable, even at the times where they should be laughing.
The girl’s trial unspools this narrative in more ways than one, including a Gordian knot: to be turned into a goat via a nonsensical ritual or to “reveal” herself as a witch. Strangely, she opts to live as a witch. This moment pushes us headfirst into I Am Not a Witch’s satirical, humorous meditations on otherness, misogyny and the social structures that leave outcasts immobile and incapable of choice.
Unable or unwilling to prove her innocence, the young girl is banished to a countryside populated with older women—a congregation of other “witches.” They name her “Shula,” which means to be uprooted, and they grow protective of her.
These camps where witches are sent function as a way to exploit cheap labor from the elder–and what are otherwise considered disposable–women in the village. These women are isolated from the rest of the population and watched over by male guards. For good measure, their movement is restricted by ribbons. They till the land and are put on display for tourists to gawk.
Under the surface of the modern government that administers these work camps, there lies an old, colonial government. One where white landowners pay officials to bring in witches for amusement or personalized service where the wealthy and powerful live in fortresses. The chief running this particular camp, Mr. Banda, is married to a witch, and they live in an elegant house. Despite its many inhabitants, Banda still jumps at the opportunity to add Shula, even though she is a child. At one point, he consistently employs her as a judge and jury. In this ironic twist of fate, Shula, who was once set to be executed, plays the role of the executioner.
Mr. Banda is the perpetrator of this heinous act and others, but it’s not pathological. Paradoxically, Mr. Banda loves his wife and ensures that she lives comfortably. Nyoni seems to suggest the pathology belongs to a society that robs the most vulnerable of their agency.
Throughout the film, Shula’s speaking parts are sparse, only speaking when spoken to or out of excitement when she realizes that Mr. Banda’s wife is also a witch. Perhaps this is how Shula contends with existing in bondage and the only way she can survive.
The allegory reveals itself through magic from the outcasts, rendered disposable, dangerous and ironically integral to the city. The most critical way Nyoni laid the foundation for Shula’s narrative was through speech, or more specifically, the lack of it. By dint of persistent silence and courage, Shula asserts herself in the same fashion she was convicted. Her silence reveals the demands placed on her to conform and obey. Shula rarely says more than a couple of words at a time, until near the film’s climax where she reminisces on the decision she made, saying: “I was just thinking I should’ve chosen to be a goat. A goat is better; it can move about freely and eat when it wants. I should have chosen to become one.” Here, Nyoni goes beyond the lurid depictions of this phenomenon. By using this story to dig deep into the psyche of Zambia’s politics, she illuminates the people and things that allow this kind of exile and bondage to occur in the open in the first place.