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James Luxford

It’s always exciting when a new cinematic voice appears on the horizon, and that’s exactly the reaction I Am Not A Witch elicited when it played at various film festivals this year.

However inaccessible it may seem at times, I Am Not A Witch is the perfect platform for Zambian-born, British-raised film maker Rungano Nyoni.

Satirising belief around witchcraft in the country of her birth, the film centres on young Shula (Maggie Mulubwa). A series of inexplicable events lead the people of Shula’s village to believe she is a witch, banishing her to a Witch Camp in the middle of the desert.

There she is tethered to a white ribbon, and told that if she severs that connection she will turn into a goat. As her ‘powers’ are exploited by the opportunistic Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), she begins to ponder whether life as a free goat is preferable to that as a tethered witch.

The film puts real issues squarely in its sights, there are such things as witch camps and the hysteria that surrounds them is not too far from that portrayed in the film.

Nyoni rightly lampoons this commotion – among Shula’s accusers is a man who claims she chopped his arm off, despite still having both arms. Besides the humour there are serious points made about these types of beliefs and the way in which they are engineered to punish or exploit women.

Those points do become a li ...

It’s always exciting when a new cinematic voice appears on the horizon, and that’s exactly the reaction I Am Not A Witch elicited when it played at various film festivals this year.

However inaccessible it may seem at times, I Am Not A Witch is the perfect platform for Zambian-born, British-raised film maker Rungano Nyoni.

Satirising belief around witchcraft in the country of her birth, the film centres on young Shula (Maggie Mulubwa). A series of inexplicable events lead the people of Shula’s village to believe she is a witch, banishing her to a Witch Camp in the middle of the desert.

There she is tethered to a white ribbon, and told that if she severs that connection she will turn into a goat. As her ‘powers’ are exploited by the opportunistic Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), she begins to ponder whether life as a free goat is preferable to that as a tethered witch.

The film puts real issues squarely in its sights, there are such things as witch camps and the hysteria that surrounds them is not too far from that portrayed in the film.

Nyoni rightly lampoons this commotion – among Shula’s accusers is a man who claims she chopped his arm off, despite still having both arms. Besides the humour there are serious points made about these types of beliefs and the way in which they are engineered to punish or exploit women.

Those points do become a little hard to follow, however, as the film takes some unusual visual turns that mean the purpose of certain scenes is not always that clear. Staying clear of conventional storytelling makes the film unique, but it also becomes something of a puzzle.

While her plight is portrayed without any mawkishness, it’s easy to feel sympathy for Mulubwa’s Shula. The young actress has a steadfastness about her, refusing to be a victim or, as one fellow witch advises her, ‘do as she is told’. There’s a grit that brings to mind Quvenzhané Wallis’ Oscar nominated lead in Beasts of The Southern Wild. Antagonist Phiri is just as compelling, albeit in a slightly more pathetic way.

Seeing an opportunity but not quite sure how to follow through on it, the larger-than-life Mr. Banda is a farcical character that draws both amusement and anger.

The occasional fogginess of the tone aside, I Am Not A Witch strides confidently on to the screen and makes a distinct impression. There may be a few looks of confusion as people leave the cinema unsure of what to take away from the film, but thanks to striking direction and interesting performances it’s certain to be something you think about for a while.

I Am Not A Witch is out in the UK on October 20.

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