The feature debut from Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni was understandably a highlight at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and has been much-anticipated following her award-winning shorts Mwansa the Great (2011) and Listen (2014). Nyoni’s triple F-rated film I Am Not a Witch is both tragic and poignant, shining a stark light on the strange and surreal world of witchcraft, and the exploitation of the women and children who are accused of it. But where there is superstition and sadness, there is also satire and levity.
Nine-year-old Shula is accused of witchcraft during a farcical investigation and offered two choices by the laughably inept government official, Mr Banda. Either confess to being a witch, or be cursed and transformed into a goat. Shula confesses and joins a group of women in a so-called ‘witch camp’, all of whom wear long white ribbons attached to over-sized spools to denote their status as ‘witches’. The bond that soon forms between the women and Shula is truly heart-warming and reflects all the good that can be found in female relationships, especially those between a child and her mother figures. They are each other’s salvation in a world where their every movement is controlled by the patriarchy.
As Banda parades Shula from place to place, through local courts and TV stations, Shula grows wilful and defiant but is palpably shrouded in sorrow, at one point saying that she wished she had cut her ribbon, because life as a goat would be better than life as a witch. Margaret Mulubwa enthralls in the lead role, her occasional smile lights up the screen but her slow tears leave you anguished and heartbroken, asking the obvious question, “What if she is just a child?”
Words: Felicity Jackson