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Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch is a cautionary fairytale that warns of the dangers of mob mentality and how that can adversely affect individual freedom.
A surreal dark comedy that deftly weaves absurdity with tragedy in a deadpan style reminiscent to the work of Yorgos Lanthimos, the story is revealed through the eyes of Shula, an eight-year-old girl accused of being a witch. Played by Maggie Mulubwa, Shula is portrayed as a silent and reasonably passive child, however, her expressive eyes often emit a defiance suggesting an awareness and maturity beyond her young years.
Despite this, there are moments throughout I Am Not a Witch that remind the audience that Shula is just a little girl, such as when she is provided with an apparatus to hold to her ear to hear the gleeful shouts of distant schoolchildren. It is in these scenes depicting Shula’s vulnerability that Mulubwa’s talent really shines, creating a powerful, albeit heartbreaking, image. Nyoni’s sensitive direction combines a tragic yet often surprisingly humourous story, producing an absurd fable that sensitively balances moments of tension against the backdrop of the vast and calmingly idyllic Zambian landscape.
I Am Not a Witch maintains an undeniably feminist stance in its discussion of the role of women in Zambian society. This is perhaps most clearly shown with the visual depiction of ribbons tied onto the backs of the witches. Although this was an artistic decision made by Nyoni, it produces a starkly symbolic message. As the superstition goes, if the ribbon is cut the witch turns into a goat. She would not survive a day in the body of a goat so, to accept herself to be a witch is to avoid this fate. In essence, she is given the illusion of choice.
This idea of the illusion of choice reoccurs throughout the film. Even though the witches themselves seem aware of the role that they occupy, they don’t seem to challenge it, suggesting it is easier to “believe” and accept a lie known to be false than to contest it. The opening scene promptly sets the satirical tone when a group of female tourists step out of a bus, proceeding to take photos of the group of witches who are dramatically wailing behind a fence, after being told the superstition of the ribbons. Vivaldi swells in the background, cementing the film’s absurdity. This darkly comedic scene effectively generates the atmosphere that continues throughout I Am Not a Witch; beneath the surreal, dramatic humour lies a hauntingly unnerving sense of foreboding.
Nyoni tactfully uses freeze-frames throughout the film, particularly during tense moments, to elevate the tension and keep the viewer on edge. These freeze-frames are reminiscent to snapshots, reminding the viewer of the instagram-esq culture of the tourists in the opening scene. I Am Not a Witch is full of wide, long shots that seem to linger a moment too long, with close-ups that seem to zoom in a little too slowly. The cinematography emphasises the uncomfortable atmosphere, building a tension from which it is hard to look away.
I Am Not a Witch is a constant dance of balance between comedy and tragedy, achieved in part by contrasting a modern Zambia against the superstitions of the past. These two opposing ideas clash together during a kangaroo court scene when a mobile incessantly rings while court is in session. Due to their so-called powers, women dubbed to be witches are taken to act as adjudicators for trials. The tragedy arrives with the responsibility being placed on the shoulders of an eight-year-old girl intuitively expected to be able to identify the guilty man from a crowd. Again, Mulubwa’s emotive eyes express her vulnerability and fear of condemning the wrong man, encouraging the audience to recognise the danger of the situation that she is in.
I Am Not a Witch is an incredible debut effort from Nyoni. A slow burn, the story softly meanders its way towards an abrupt end that clings in the mind until long after the credits have rolled. Nyoni superbly balances comedy with tragedy with a sensitivity that switches between these two tones within a matter of mere seconds. I thoroughly recommend I Am Not a Witch and I look forward to seeing what Rungano Nyoni will do next.