Part of the First Feature Competition, I am not a witch is a moving, funny and vivid film that will hopefully be spoken about for a long time after its release. It is the kind of film that should be shown to viewers of all ages in all countries, as its themes resonate with people everywhere despite a story that is very local.
The term “witch” has always sounded very strong to me, and one can’t help but remembering injustices done to women accused of harms that were often invented. In Rungano Nyoni’s film, we start by seeing international tourists visiting a site in Zambia to watch a group of so-called witches sitting in a line and minding their own business. They have long ribbons streaming down their backs and leading to giant spindles so they do not run away. The level of superstition that witches and others feel in their society means that no one tries to fight the idea that cutting the ribbon would turn the witches into goats. Despite their limitations, these witches laugh, tell stories and work hard in the fields. In a sense, they are well taken care of and even celebrated, so why would they try to escape this life?
One day, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), a quiet and discrete ten-year-old girl, wanders down a path and a woman suddenly spills the water she was carrying. Soon after, Shula is taken to the police station, accused by the whole community of being a witch. Local authorities get involved, and Shula is pushed into admitting to being a witch. Her life subsequently changes and she is asked to be the judge during local trials, is interviewed on television and asked when it will rain so that the land does not dry up. In addition, she is not sent to school and asked to work in the fields with her fellow witches.
Because Shula is so young, the mayor’s wife takes her under her wing. She herself is also a witch, and has to wear the ribbon over her expensive designer clothes when she goes out. A conversation between the two sums up the message of the film for me: the mayor’s wife says she has gained respectability by marrying him, and the only way for people to leave a girl like Shula alone is if she just follows the rules and stays in line. Later, when the two are out shopping, the wife is attacked by passersby when they see her ribbon. Her speech becomes insignificant, and we learn that there are actually no rules. Meanwhile, Shula is a constant observer and remains respectful of her duties, but we sense she is wondering whether her choice of admitting to being a witch was wise after all.
While there is a clear storyline to this film, with Shula observing the world around her until she becomes too overwhelmed by her duty as a witch, it is interspersed with independent long scenes that show the daily life and struggles of those living in this area. Moving scenes of celebration (one line that struck me says that death is a part of life, and therefore needs to be celebrated) are followed by quirky scenes of the mayor trying to impress his colleagues or a woman selling “Beyonce” and “Rihanna” wigs to the witches. There is humour in these commonplace happenings, and they are lovely to watch as we are peering into these people’s intimate lives.
This is a society that is full of inconsistencies, wanting to progress and be law-abiding despite being ruled by a queen who doesn’t want Shula to go to school and the wealth only being available to some. In telling Shula what she should do, it contradicts itself.
I encourage everyone to watch this film for a new perspective on how we treat young girls that touches close to home.