I Am Not A Witch


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

I Am Not A Witch
"The bobbins are a brilliantly employed metaphor, something that feels freshly sprung from a fairy tale, only silly until you consider how sinister they are."

Welsh-Zambian Rungano Nyoni blends fact, with just a smattering of magic realist fable to take a satirical sideswipe at the country of her birth - and sexual politics more widely. The result is not only laugh out loud funny, it also carries an emotional kick in the gut.

In the running for the best debut film at this year's BAFTAs, it tracks the story of eight-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who after being in the wrong place at the wrong time finds herself accused by fellow villagers of being a witch.

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While we don't doubt the seriousness of the accusation, Nyoni builds in a level of absurdity - a rich seam that will run through the rest of the film - as the villagers gather outside the local police office to relate their woes to the sceptical officer. What she sees is just a kid, but to government official and Shula's soon to be self-declared "state guardian" Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri) she's a pay cheque.

Banda is the archetypal corrupt petition, roly-poly of figure and conniving of countenance, the perfect combination of the dangerous and the ludicrous. Carting Shula off to the local 'witch camp', she is given a stark choice - join the other women, employed to till the field and spot liars in a crowd and whose movements are restricted by ribbons, one end attached to their backs with the other end wrapped around enormous cotton bobbins, or cut the cord and become a goat.

The bobbins are a brilliantly employed metaphor, something that feels freshly sprung from a fairy tale, only silly until you consider how sinister they are. They represent not only the way that men like Banda control the women, but also reflect how the, in turn, are often fellow architects in our own restrictions. At one point, early in the film, the cajolling Banda exhorts the elder 'witches' to remember how much ribbon he has given them since taking office - and there are surely few women anywhere in the world who haven't had a variation on this conversation at some point.There is also a stark illustration showing that, even if you could be notionally freed from the ribbon's slavery without turning into a goat, you will still always be forced to carry the idea of it with you.

Nyoni - who visited witch camps in Ghana for research on the project - paints a world where a farmer can be listening to Estelle's American Boy on his headphones while still employing oxen to do a day's work, at once fully mobile phone ready but enamoured with the superstitions of the past. She also isn't afraid to leave us to stew in discomfort, such as when a gawking tourist happens upon Shula, huddled in a grotesque smiling head and suggests that what would really cheer her up would be to take part in a photo. These slashing satirical moments are counterpointed by a sense of melancholy, such as when Shula, relieved of field duties, finds a moment of small pleasure by listening to children playing and being taught in a distant classroom.

Cinematographer David Gallego adds to the moment with strong framing, whether it is the sight of ribbons in the wind or the women singing against the night. And at the heart of this storm, sits little Shula - the youngest resident of a human zoo - while Nyoni implores us to consider the ties that bind as they tighten implacably around the innocent.

Reviewed on: 13 Jan 2018
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I Am Not A Witch packshot
A young girl is accused of being a witch.

Director: Rungano Nyoni

Writer: Rungano Nyoni

Starring: Gloria Huwiler, Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri, Travers Merrill, Nancy Murilo, Nellie Munamonga, Dyna Mufuni, Chileshe Kalimamukwento, Ritah Mubanga

Year: 2017

Runtime: 90 minutes

Country: UK, France

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