“I AM NOT A WITCH”— A Feminist Look at Zambia

“I AM NOT A WITCH” A Feminist Look at Zambia Amos Lassen  Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s “I Am a Witch” is a satire about witchcraft in contemporary Zambia. When nine-year-old Shula is accused of witchcraft, she is exiled to a witch camp run by Mr. Banda, a corrupt government official. Shula is tied to the ground by a white ribbon and told that she will turn into a goat if she tries to escape. As the only child witch, Shula quickly becomes a local star and the adults around her use her supposed powers for financial gain. Soon she is forced to make a difficult decision – whether to resign herself to life on the camp or take a risk for freedom.
This is spellbinding storytelling with flashes of anarchic humor.  Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is taken around Zambia by her ‘state guardian’,  Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri) who has her adjudicating court cases and performing various services, for which his financial benefit.  
The general tone of “I Am Not a Witch” is tragic and downbeat, there is are moments of warmth and even moments of the black humor, particularly in the beginning when a village congregation accuses Shula of witchcraft to a bored-looking, skeptical official. One man accuses her based on a dream he had of his arm falling off. Elsewhere, as Shula is expected to adjudicate a trial, the claimant bringing the trial to court can’t turn off his phone.
The film’s central themes of exploitation by elites, patriarchal control, and a lack of individual freedoms are universal, but in rooting the film in such a specific experience (that of Shula’s ordeals as a suspected witch), Nyoni is able to craft a film that speaks to the oppression of women everywhere. Mulubwa has a striking screen presence, her eyes able to switch from fury to confusion to fear in a handful of frames. The camera clearly loves her.
The film does not pass judgement on the cultural practices around witchcraft itself but instead targets the societal pressures around the perception and treatment of women accused of witchcraft, again making sure that the subject matter remains culturally specific while the themes are universal.  Young heroine Shula never says, “I am not a witch”. Even as her journey grows increasingly absurd, her situation more devastatingly dire, and the accusations and atrocities pile up, Shula’s unmoving, placid face observes the mess. Though set in a heightened modern-day Zambia, the structure of Nyoni’s plot is close to classically familiar witch-hunt tales. Following her initial accusation, Shula is abused by a system that simultaneously seeks to punish and exploit her. She finds moments of connection and kindness with others in her same situation, but she is thwarted by the system again, and then it all repeats in predictable ways.
The heart of the story is in the witch camp where Shula is sent both for protection and incarceration. The film’s opening moments show this camp, a mashup of fact and fantasy, where tourists stop to blithely take photos of accused witches. The prisoners sit together with spools of white ribbons tied to harnesses on their backs, attached to heavy pins in order to keep the women from flying off and committing awful, witchy business.
Shula’s story feels simultaneously particular and universal, showing the archaic ways that any society lords power over feminine bodies and lives, no matter the country. The fact that the violence and misogyny of this tale touches a child gives Nyoni’s message gravity. The  final moments give us a vision of brokenness that feels both inevitable and shocking, Nyoni saves the hope for her final image, one that speaks to the ridiculousness, the harm, and the emptiness yet beautifully reveals the true transformative power of Shula’s quiet, uprooted strength. The result is a release that refuses to ignore the cruelty, but also refuses to allow it to have the final say. BONUS FEATURES 
  • Interview with director Rungano Nyoni
  • Bonus Short Film – Mwansa the Great(Directed by Rungano Nyoni | UK/Zambia | 23 minutes | Nyanja with English subtitles ) – While trying to prove he is a hero, Mwansa does the unforgivable and accidentally breaks his big sister Shula’s special mud doll. He goes on a quest not only to fix it, but to finally prove he is Mwansa the Great.                         

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