A startling movie, ‘I Am Not a Witch’ is many things. It’s a magic realist fable set in present-day Zambia that has plenty to say about gender and superstition. It’s also a satire, a tragedy and a comedy. And, impressively, debut writer-director Rungano Nyoni makes this heady mix work.
Newcomer Maggie Mulubwa stars as eight-year-old orphan Shula, who is randomly accused of witchcraft and forced to join a travelling witch show. She’s mistreated yet revered: her ‘powers’ are called upon to pick felons out of line-ups. There’s a Kafkaesque flavour as Nyoni explores these contradictions and pokes fun at absurd bureaucrats. Chief comic figure – and villain – is Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), a public official who exploits Shula for profit. We meet him lying in his bath, being soaped down by his female companion and talking on the phone to a police officer about a ‘new witch in town’. This is an ugly patriarch lazily using women for his own ends – and there are Mr Bandas still out there: the Zambian-born, Welsh-raised Nyoni stayed in real-life ‘witch camps’ as part of her research.
Some scenes outstay their welcome, and the film is no easy piece of exotica: Western tourists are implicitly culpable in this story. But that just makes it all the more compelling.