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Natalie Stendall

I Am Not A Witch opens on a sort of human zoo. Tourists gawp over fences at women tied by ribbons so they cannot ‘fly away’. Zambian-born writer-director Rungano Nyoni strikes a peculiar but absolutely spellbinding tone in her debut feature that explores life in a government endorsed witch camp.

Nine year old Shula is taken from her African village after she’s accused of witchcraft following an odd but coincidental event.

Superstition in the community approaches hysteria and the workings of a witch doctor is so ridiculous that Nyoni refuses to give it credence by cutting away from his final judgement. It’s a bizarre sequence of comedy and consternation, a real humdinger of a setup.

It soon becomes clear that the government knows what it’s up to. Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), introduces Shula to hard labour and uses her to control the populace in trials by witchcraft. As Shula sits in judgement of suspects she gains both the respect and the abhorrence of the communities she enters.

Nyoni paints a complex picture in which the accused women are both punished and occasionally revered. Shula’s alleged power brings with it brief empowerment duly crushed by a misogynistic and loaded system. Banda adds to Shula’s own confusion masking corruption with a kind face. Even the women begin to take advantage of each other.

Invigorating in its originality, there are ...

I Am Not A Witch opens on a sort of human zoo. Tourists gawp over fences at women tied by ribbons so they cannot ‘fly away’. Zambian-born writer-director Rungano Nyoni strikes a peculiar but absolutely spellbinding tone in her debut feature that explores life in a government endorsed witch camp.

Nine year old Shula is taken from her African village after she’s accused of witchcraft following an odd but coincidental event.

Superstition in the community approaches hysteria and the workings of a witch doctor is so ridiculous that Nyoni refuses to give it credence by cutting away from his final judgement. It’s a bizarre sequence of comedy and consternation, a real humdinger of a setup.

It soon becomes clear that the government knows what it’s up to. Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), introduces Shula to hard labour and uses her to control the populace in trials by witchcraft. As Shula sits in judgement of suspects she gains both the respect and the abhorrence of the communities she enters.

Nyoni paints a complex picture in which the accused women are both punished and occasionally revered. Shula’s alleged power brings with it brief empowerment duly crushed by a misogynistic and loaded system. Banda adds to Shula’s own confusion masking corruption with a kind face. Even the women begin to take advantage of each other.

Invigorating in its originality, there are copious moments in I Am Not A Witch when you’re not sure whether to laugh or reel back in shock.

A talk show appearance marks the film’s pinnacle of tragic satire. Nyoni doesn’t hold back in mocking the irrationality of the community and the complicit individuals who should know better.

She’s brilliantly supported by a cast of newcomers who assume their roles with subtlety and understatement.

Nellie Munamonga, as a police officer listening to the community’s accusation of Shula, is an outright scene stealer. Between her skeptical glances and fumbles with a piece of bread we read incredulity, irritation and browbeaten acceptance.

As Shula, child actor Maggie Mulubwa is a revelation. At her finest in quiet moments of reflection, she sheds a single tear or stares into the eyes of her tormentors.

Nyoni – whose work here signifies the arrival of a new and assured talent – holds the camera on these poignant images and harnesses everyday sounds to explore the ordinary life Shula is missing. Her comic touches bring this potent subject an energising lightness but the ending to I Am A Not A Witch is as profound as it is original.

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