I Am Not A Witch

 

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Or would you rather be a goat?

 
I Am B=Not A Witch
  

Although a work of great originality, this debut feature by writer/director Rungani Nyoni is not the unique piece that for some it will seem to be. Go back to 1975 and the noted African filmmaker Ousmane Sembene was offering us a satirical work, Xala, commenting on the state of affairs in his country. That country was Senegal following independence and here Nyoni, who grew up in Wales but was born in Zambia, is giving us an often absurdist piece critical of life in her birthplace.

 

The central figure here is a child given the name of Shula and played by the almost silent Margaret Mulubwa. Accused of witchcraft, she is told by government official Banda (Henry P.J. Phiri) that she must accept this ridiculous designation or become a goat. In the circumstances she goes along with the idea that she is indeed a witch: together with other females, she becomes treated as part of a work force while at other times she is presented as part of a witch camp. The latter is set up as an attraction to be viewed by tourists for whom they are akin to animals in a zoo. In Shula’s case her supposed powers lead to her being required to identify the guilty one among suspects paraded before her and also to being used to invoke rain after a disastrous dry spell.

 

As Arthur Miller’s famous play The Crucible reminds us, accusations of witchcraft in a historical setting can feed a drama that is intended to carry extra weight by representing a modern parallel. In the case of I Am Not A Witch, Shula’s experiences readily suggest a comment on the way in which women are still treated today - and not only in Zambia. And, even if the tale eschews naturalism (the so-called witches are prevented from flying off by bearing white ribbons attached to spools that ground them) and even if laughter is frequently invited (right down to a joke about Rihanna), the fact is that I Am Not A Witch is the story of a life ruined and of a child who suffers. For me (it may not be the case for others since there were laughs at the press show that I attended) this results in a vital misjudgment: how can I possibly laugh when Margaret Malubwa’s eloquently expressive face speaks throughout of unbearable human distress brought about by an unjust society (even the concept of the witch camp apparently derives not from fairy tale but from actuality). At the close - but only then - Nyoni’s film takes on a telling poetic note that does register truly. For the rest I find her intriguing concept ineffective because the pain at the heart of this work means that, in contrast to a work like Sembene’s Xala, satire is itself rendered impotent.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Margaret Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri, Nancy Mulilo, Margaret Sipanela.

 

Dir Rungano Nyoni, Pro Juliette Grandmont and Emily Morgan, Screenplay Rungano Nyoni, Ph David Gallego, Pro Des Nathan Parker, Ed Yann Dedet, George Cragg and Thibault Hague, Music Matthew James Kelly, Costumes Holly Rebecca.

 

Clandestine Films/Soda Pictures/Film4/Ffilm Cymru Wales/BFI/Unafilm-Curzon Artificial Eye.
93 mins. UK/France 2017. Rel: 20 October 2017. Cert. 12A.