Women, on the whole, are used to being categorized, objectified, and underestimated. Many of us learn and internalize these conditions in girlhood, often by watching how the men and women in our lives treat other women whom they consider inferior. This painful and distinctly female perspective grounds writer-director Rungano Nyoni’s coruscating feature debut, a surrealist fable centered on a quiet Zambian girl (newcomer Maggie Mulubwa) whose gimlet-eyed gaze provokes villagers to brand her as a witch.
The local authorities banish the girl to a “witch camp” of mostly middle-aged women. Besides being forced to work on farmland and present themselves before busloads of gawking tourists, each of the “witches” is tethered to a gigantic spool by a long white ribbon attached to a harness on her back. The device allows a few yards of movement before yanking its captive backward, which the girl discovers when she attempts to run away. The tether is a metaphor, of course, as are the two options presented to the girl and all other “witches” upon arrival at the camp: either agree to the label, tether and all; or refuse, and transform into a goat. Understandably, the girl chooses the former.
Born in Zambia and raised in Wales, Nyoni is an assertive filmmaker with a keen sense of who and what to judge. I Am Not a Witch is in part a social satire, though it’s neither the tribe’s superstition nor the film’s band of women resigned to their status as witches that Nyoni is lambasting. Rather, Nyoni reserves the bulk of her criticism for the film’s villain: a government official named Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) who looks at the “little witch” and sees dollar signs. The distaste Nyoni also evinces for tourists who visit the camp and objectify the women with their iPhone cameras is inextricable from the film’s overarching criticism of the misogynistic charlatans who would promote such displays in the first place. While I Am Not a Witch examines a particular society’s judgment of unruly women and girls, it is the mercenary worldview and craven deeds of people like Mr. Banda that Nyoni puts on trial.
The ways in which Nyoni conveys this criticism, however—as well as her empathy and affection for the women at her story’s heart—are what elevate her film to dizzying emotional heights. Narratively and tonally, I Am Not a Witch occasionally invites comparisons to the work of Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos. Visually and aurally, though, the film marks the arrival of a unique and scintillating auteur.
With a well-matched director of photography in David Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent), Nyoni presents one dazzling set piece after another. Her preferences for long takes, bright colors, and dynamic wide shots that resemble paintings cement the film as high art for its imagery alone. When this is paired with crisp sound design and a stirring excerpt from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons as a recurring motif, the sensory effect is indelible. Highlights that replay in this critic’s mind reel include: a close-up of the girl as she holds a blue cone to her ear and listens to nearby schoolchildren play; a high-angle shot of a circle of women in red, chanting; and a slow zoom out on a sea of white ribbons rippling in the wind.
The film’s protagonist, the girl whose gaze bespeaks a fortitude that her physical fragility belies, comes to the camp alone. She is nameless, with no family or friends to vouch for her. It is the women, the witches, who take her in. One tattoos the girl’s forehead with three tiny dashes, to match the tattoos of the others. Another gives her a name, Shula, which means “to be uprooted.”
These women give new contours to Shula’s innate resilience, which also lends the film a hopeful streak to offset its bitter humor and scathing social commentary. When Mr. Banda and his wife, a former “witch,” become Shula’s guardians and trot her out to the media for financial gain, Shula holds on to her power—which the witches have instilled in her, and which her oppressors cannot take away. Though her agency is extremely limited, down to the amount of space she is literally allowed to take up in the world, Shula refuses to be categorized, objectified, or underestimated.
A fierce and auspicious talent, Nyoni too defies categorization. I can’t wait to see what she does next. v