Movie Review

I Am Not a Witch (2017) by Rungano Nyoni

Original Name: I Am Not a Witch

Director: Rungano Nyoni

Runtime: 93 minutes

Language: Bemba

IMDB Link:

Rungano Nyoni: Born in Zambia, she emigrated to Wales at the age of nine. A graduate of the University of Arts in London, she directed several short films (The List , Mwansa the Great , Listen), which won her awards and welcome criticism.

 “With Dr Strangelove, people laugh because they know that it’s absurd. In my case, even though everything is fictionalised, I wanted to show Zambian humour and how we deal with tragic events, which from the outside may seem very inappropriate. But it’s the humour that I wanted to put across without apologising.”

I am Not a Witch is a bold and confident debut from Zambian/Welsh Rungano Nyoni, whose singular voice makes this film a tragicomedy in a same sense of humor of The Lobster, and that is the best compliment I could muster. The very first sequence of the film indicates us about the absurdist tone that film embraces: a group of tourists visits the witch camp, which consist of twenty, thirty old women with long white ribbon attached to their backs (the long white ribbon is Nyoni’s creation). It comes to the points where these “witches” become nothing more than tourist attraction. The unnamed girl who is accused of being a witch (later people name her as Shula), is helpless and can’t even defend herself. She is dragged through the absurdist investigation where a villager accuses her for ripping his arm off (despite that said arm remains fit), then to the witch camp and finds herself as a golden goose made by the local government man, whom uses her to identify local thieves and even goes so far to advertising her in a TV program. The absurdist, sometimes downright farce humor about a serious issue in a culture full of misogyny hits the message far better than any straight, conventional approach.

There’s a fairy-tale like quality in this tale, as we learn early on about the fates that Shula will has to choose – cut the ribbon and becomes a goat, or keep the ribbon to live as a witch.  It’s the overarching plot thread that Shula will have to choose throughout the course of the film. Although pitch-black undertones where Shula is shopped around helplessly beyond her comprehension, there’s still some moments of hope. At one time she listens to the voice of school teaching nearby, the only time that she’s truly happy in the movie. The film also takes the opportunity to show the lives of the witch camp, where the women doing their labor work, become a public display, and live in a harsh condition all around.

Apart from the absurdist tone, Nyoni also makes this tale stick out with some impressive cinematic visual. The giant reels that contain long, white ribbon attached to the witches so that they can’t fly off come to mind, and it metaphorically represents the social bind that ties them down, restricts them from moving around freely. Shula is often placed at the centre of the shot, to further underline her awkward, almost out-of-place position. The use of classical music, likewise, is bold and compliments its bleak humor very well. The strong color of the white ribbons and some costumes, in contrast with its muted world is also strikingly displayed. This is a confident showcase of a talented filmmaker, both from her fierce idea as well as her sure-handed direction.

It’s through these laughs that we can sense the angry voice underneath, the discontent about the misconception and mistreatment towards the lives those witches, whose often took a sharp turn just out of some accusers’ whims. “In the end I can’t help what people get from it, or take from it, I just hope that they laugh and that they feel the tragedy.” Nyoni said that in one of her interview, and she succeed on doing just that, and then some. Sometimes it’s best to let out your anger by the absurdist humor, be its humor as pitch black as the night sky.