by Korede Azeez
I Am Not a Witch paints a dazzling picture of dysphoric scenarios. Nine-year-old Shula is exploited and despised by people who should protect her. A woman accidentally breaks her water pot and she looks up to find a child standing there, so the girl is a witch. A man loses his arm to the child’s axe in a dream, so she is a witch. These and several other ridiculous reasons are brought before local police to justify the villagers’ belief that Shula is a witch. Rungano Nyoni’s brilliant debut feature is a feminist film satirizing the absurd idea of witch camps where old women are held and made to work for the government as tourist attractions and as field hands.
In the witch camp, the women are attached by ribbons to oversized spools so they won’t fly away. When she is brought to the camp, Shula is forced to make a choice between staying attached to her ribbon and cutting it. If she leaves her ribbon, she accepts her new life at the camp and if she cuts it, she turns into a goat. The ribbons represent the social conditioning and mental blocks that keep women in check and make them afraid to cut themselves loose. To be free is to become a goat and that is way more terrifying than living a life that is not one’s own to live. It is painful to watch a helpless child exploited the way Shula is with no one to speak for her or rescue her from a gloomy existence, but thoughtful direction, potent symbolism, graceful cinematography, and dark humor are some of the elements Nyoni employs to not only make us feel, but also make us think deeply about what is happening.
Under the guardianship of Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), a government official overseeing the witch camp, Shula is paraded as a child witch who can detect a lie and make the rains come. Mr. Banda, of course, gets paid when she performs. In one sequence, she is taken to a community where a man’s property has been stolen. Several young men are brought before her, each one swearing to be innocent. She is lost as to how to pick out the liar, but is allowed a phone call to the older witches who tell her to pick the jittery one. Shula’s finger rests on one of the men and a search of his house leads the authorities to believe he is indeed the thief, so Shula is given gifts. That night, she returns to celebration at the camp, probably feeling that her situation may not be so bad after all.
In efforts to make Shula accept and maybe even be happy with her lot, Mr. Banda takes her to meet his wife, Charity (Nancy Murilo), a former inmate of the camp who is now free of the ribbon. Charity advises her to give in and in time she too would become free. However, Shula soon learns there is never any freedom for a woman once branded a witch. From the safety of Charity’s car, Shula watches as the ‘free witch’ is pelted with groceries by strangers who identify her as a witch. This barbaric act stemming from oppressive traditional beliefs happens against a backdrop of modernity in the parking lot of a mall.
Following Shula’s story felt like watching a clueless goat being led to the slaughter. Soon, it senses the danger and resists, but is forcefully dragged along anyway. Shula slips into a quiet defiance, a silent protest saying she’s had enough. Even though she never says the actual words, her taciturn demeanor, silent tears at a TV interview, and hopelessness as tourists make her nothing more than a photo prop all seem to be her way of screaming “I Am Not a Witch”. In the final act of the film, we learn how broken she is in a scene where she declares she would have been better off if she had cut the ribbon and become a goat. For most of the film, Shula doesn’t drive the plot as most protagonists do. Rather, we watch as the actions of others determine her fate. That changes when she decides to take her fate in her own hands. Even more profound is the impact of her choice on the older women.
The cinematography pulls us into a world as real as it is surreal. It feels like we’re in a real African community somewhere on the map yet could be in another dimension. There is no doubt David Gallego’ work with the camera is a vital part of what makes I Am Not a Witch as powerful as it is. There are several memorable frames, especially in the final act. One of my favorites is the final shot of the women’s ribbons swaying in the wind as the camera tilts down and pulls back to reveal lonely spools in a truck, abandoned fields beyond.
The director is bold about what she wants to say and is clear about the message she wants to pass. She points an extremely critical finger at the oppressors – the exploitative government, demon-men who pose as saviors, clueless tourists who turn a blind eye, people callous enough to blame their mishaps on an innocent child, and other women who participate in and even engineer the oppression and persecution of women. Nyoni’s use of humor and irony puts a spotlight on the ridiculousness of the situation, but I don’t think it’s intended to make us laugh, at least not comfortably. I certainly didn’t laugh.
Watching the film, I couldn’t help but think about how boldly feminist it is. No, it doesn’t have a strong female lead who tears the patriarchy apart, neither is it set in a world where there are no men. I Am Not a Witch is a strong feminist film because it was consciously made and succeeds in making you think about the deadly effects of a patriarchal society so dangerous that the most vulnerable are not safe. In an article for The Decider, Jade Budowski argues that a film isn’t feminist because of an absence of sexism and misogyny, but is “feminist because it means to be.” I Am Not a Witch is a film with an agenda. It forces you to think about the social status of women oppressed by their own people, threatened because they are perceived to be a threat for whatever reasons their accusers fancy.