Film, Film Review

REVIEW: I Am Not A Witch (2017) dir. Rungano Nyoni

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October is here, and along with it the seasonal repeat-viewings of witchy films like The Witch (2016) and The Craft (1996). Amidst the feverish witch-worship of the Halloween season, something unexpected emerges at the MFA. From first-time director Rungano Nyoni, and screening throughout the month of October (following a premiere at the inaugural Boston Women’s Film Festival), I Am Not A Witch tells a witch story that covers new ground. Surreal, yet firmly anchored in reality, I Am Not A Witch is the story of a young girl charged with witchcraft, and the political and cultural forces at play in her accusation.

Our protagonist is an eight-year-old orphan girl named Shula, fiercely portrayed by acting novice Maggie Mulubwa. After arriving unaccompanied in a rural Zambian village, the townspeople are quick to cry witch over an unremarkable incident. Sula’s punishment: life imprisonment at a witch camp. For the uninitiated, a witch camp seems to be a sort of forced-labor camp, where women accused of witchcraft live in isolation and work without pay. These women, all decades older than Shula, are tethered to long spools of white ribbon, out of a fear that, being witches, they may opt to fly away. Shula is given a choice upon her arrival: either accept the bondage of the ribbon or be turned into a goat. Rather unsurprisingly, Sula chooses the ribbon, an image which works well both symbolically and aesthetically, and is just one of many indicators that Nyoni has a keen eye for cinematography.

As the youngest of the witches, the sullen Shula is somewhat of a novelty. She catches the eye of Mr. Banda, an official from a government organization known as the Ministry of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, who assigns her to special tasks. She uses her perceived supernatural powers to summon rain and decide the outcome of trials, and even makes an appearance on a talk show. As a result of her notoriety, Mr. Banda affords her special privileges, including being able to attend school with other children her age. The more time she spends with Mr. Banda, however, the more clear it becomes that he’s exploiting her to drum up publicity for the Ministry and attract white tourists with the spectacle of exotic customs.

Despite the distinctive plot and setting and the strangely humorous tone, there is something deeply familiar about this story. Like other witch narratives, it reflects deep-rooted fears about women’s power and agency, and the ways in which tradition is used to legitimize and enforce those fears. The film’s clearest articulation of this collision of fear and tradition is embodied by Mr. Banda’s wife, Charity, a former prisoner at the witch camp. The audience can guess that Charity’s life sentence was lifted as a result of her physical attractiveness, a dangerous power in and of itself. Although she’s afforded a level of autonomy unthinkable to the other witches, she’s still forced to bring her telltale spool with her when she leaves the house to warn others of her transgressions. The ribbon is even propped up on a chair in her bedroom as a reminder that she can never truly be free. It doesn’t take a feminist scholar to question the power dynamics at play in her marriage—like Shula, her gifts attracted the attention of Mr. Banda, so she seized her opportunity to escape. Her presence in his home is a debt she must repay with devotion.

Interestingly, we rarely see the women in this film perform anything resembling our understanding of magic, and it isn’t explicitly clear why the accusation of witchcraft was levied against any of them. In this way, I Am Not A Witch is less about the individual transgressions of the witches, and more about a collective paranoia around womanhood that transcends culture.

 

I Am Not A Witch
2017
dir. Rungano Nyoni
93 min.

Screens through 10/31 at the Museum of Fine Arts – click here for showtimes and ticket info

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