I Am Not a Witch, the brilliant feature debut of Zambian-Welsh writer and director Rungano Nyoni, is a satire with the haunting, surreal sensibility of a fairy tale. A little girl is accused of witchcraft, and driven on a forced journey through an entire society, from parched agrarian fields to a TV call-in talk show. Her enigmatic silence and possible magic powers expose the folly and wickedness of the adults around her—and expose, also, the inevitable consequences of every faith. Internet pioneer John Gilmore famously said, “The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it.” In I Am Not a Witch we see how every human society interprets its own beliefs as damage, and routes around them.
The girl (Maggie Mulubwa), in her ragged t-shirt that says “#bootycall,” is nameless at first. She is dragged before a hilariously unimpressed local policewoman (Nellie Munamonga) and subjected to a trial in which the main witness testimony is a contemporary version of the “She turned me into a newt!” shtick from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We get our first taste of the movie’s terrific dialogue (“So that you know I’m a real witch doctor, I’ll take all my clothes off”)—and then the child is banished to an isolated camp where witches dance at the end of long white ribbons.
And here the film’s strangeness and subtlety emerge. According to the film’s (invented) mythology, the ribbons keep the witches from flying and killing. They also provide some of the film’s most memorable images: the witches’ labor truck studded with huge spools to anchor their ribbons; witches working the fields, their ribbons floating behind them.
The witch camp is a place of beauty as well as slavery. The witches welcome the girl, name her Shula (meaning “uprooted”; “It’s a lucky name,” one witch comments sincerely), and bring her into their dance. At her trial, one of her accusers said that the girl “has no friends, she has no family, she wanders around like a lost person.” The witch camp is prison but it also becomes her first home. Every culture produces a subculture of its outcasts.
The story of little Shula is the story of every child who becomes a vessel for adult hopes and needs. Every society has these kids: the child soldier, the child preacher, the child empress, the child star.
But I Am Not a Witch never feels generic. The film’s Zambia is a place where agrarian and postindustrial, premodern and postmodern, constantly interpenetrate. A witch gets harassed at the supermarket. An ox driver listens to Estelle’s “American Boy” on headphones. Different worlds lie side by side, sometimes silently (a woman at the witch camp wears a rosary), sometimes in noisy conflict (a man calls in to the talk show to say the people responsible for Shula should be arrested for keeping her out of school). This is a Zambia where witches are “government property” under the auspices of the Ministry for Tourism and Traditional Belief. It’s a made-up ministry—the real one is the Ministry for Tourism and Arts, which does not run witch camps—but it expresses a certain cynical truth about tradition in the tourist economy.
The witch camps and their exiled women are real, though Nyoni invented some of the more fairy-tale details. In preparation for the film she visited camps in Ghana and Zambia. “I am just trying to point out the absurdity of something that is misogynistic,” Nyoni told The Independent (UK). “In my research, I found that the way[s] that these people who held witches talked about women were extraordinary, so the film came from a place of anger.” Nyoni’s satire is sharply directed at witch-hunters. You will laugh your way through this movie, but you’ll never forget that its central character is a suffering innocent.
That’s not to say that the film’s social vision has the self-assured limits of a “message picture” or “issue film.” Nyoni is too much of a comedian for that. Every interaction exposes compromises and power struggles. A witch doctor’s suited companion pointedly asks him, when he isn’t dancing fast enough, “Are you tired? Keep going!” The witches defend Shula, but they also use her to get money for gin and wigs.
We see an entire spectrum of traditional-to-modern belief: people who believe witches are evil, people who believe they’re powerful and can do good if they want to, people who think witchcraft is backwards nonsense. Everybody’s sincerity is compromised. The believers are also desperate hucksters—government official Mr. Banda (a delightful Henry B.J. Phiri) and his witch wife bring Shula before a white academic to prove her powers, but they can offer only their own pleading grins and flop sweat. The unbelievers, from the weary policewoman to the talk-show host, are powerless or self-interested. Every hope has its edge of punishment when hope is disappointed. Every belief—including the belief that Shula is an innocent victim—has cash value. (She’s great television!) Nyoni attacks specific contemporary forms of wickedness; but she also knows that adaptability and folly marble human action like fat in meat. This is a film that fights injustice while acknowledging and even highlighting universal human helplessness.
The movie’s final image is beautiful but might at first seem too simple for the sardonic film that preceded it. Then a final audio cue adds a sting, a hint of mystery, and a subtle condemnation not solely of political or religious oppressors, but of humankind.
Eve Tushnet is a writer and speaker living in Washington, D.C.