When witchcraft is talked about or mentioned, horror, Halloween and even the witch trials come to mind. Yet witchcraft is still used in modern societies, whether as authority or as a form of entertainment or both. Director Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch focuses on a travelling witch camp in Zambia and in particular 9 year old Shula. After being accused of witchcraft she is given a choice, to become part of the group or to be turned into a goat.
A young girl is accused of witchcraft in a village after a small incident. The village gathers to collectively accuse her at which she neither confirms nor denies being a witch. She is taken to a government run camp with other witches all older women. When faced with becoming a witch or becoming a goat, she agrees with the former. The older women take her under their wing naming her Shula. As she is so young and oddity, the bumbling government official, Mr Banda, in charge, ferries her around dressed in an over the top costume to find criminals and to promote the camps on TV. Shula starts to stand her ground, refusing to take part in the camp and begins to see how things really work.
In preparation for the film, Nyoni spent time with a real witch camp in Ghana, taking inspiration later used in the film, as well as adding her own flourishes such as the ribbons which each witch is attached too, showing that they are not free and are controlled by someone higher. She presents an obvious negative view of these camps, emphasizing the vile aspects with tourists coming to stare at the women with make up on their faces. Nyoni has said that the film is not about belief in witchcraft but rather the ridiculousness of the accusations as these are aimed at older women and children, as they are in the film.
This is Shula’s story and how she is forced to take part in the somewhat baffling ceremonies for wealthy clients, works in the fields with the other ‘witches’ or being paraded around in a costume on TV. Although a serious subject, there are moments so ridiculous comedy seeps through to lighten to mood, but ultimately there is a sense of sadness that follows Shula around. We aren’t given an insight into where she came from or if she has any family making her mysterious but suspicious to everyone else. Maggie Mulubwa is near expressionless throughout and barely speaks, but this makes all the difference, her wide eyes doing all the talking for her. Her character Shula, obviously doesn’t belong in the camp and even says towards the end that she wished she had become goat. But if she had chosen to become a goat, the story would have been very different.
Dir: Rungano Nyoni
Scr: Rungano Nyoni
Cast: Maggie Mulubwa, Henry BJ Phiri
DoP: David Gallego
Music: Matthew James Kelly
Country: UK, France
Running time: 90 minutes
I Am Not a Witch is released in cinemas in the UK 20th October 2017