by Wilfred Okiche
In many parts of Africa, Nigeria inclusive, children still live tragic, unimaginable lives. Identified as child witches with nothing more than hearsay substituting as empirical evidence, these children are forced out of their homes and into the streets. In any case, they are not expected to survive as nature takes its inevitable course, wherever the worst of human nature leaves off.
Rungano Nyoni is a Zambia born Welsh writer-director whose timely and topical debut feature length, I Am not a Witch is one of two films that opened this year’s edition of the annual Africa International Film Festival (AFRIFF).
In children’s book, fairytales and old wives tales, witches are supposed to be kitted with magical powers or broomsticks that can make them fly to distant places. In Nyoni’s film, the children and women who have been identified as witches – for reasons as flimsy as an unwelcoming stare – do not have such luxuries. They are tethered to the ground by coloured ribbons tied to giant reels and the watchful gazes of the men who would not let them be. And what is sadder than a witch who cannot fly?
Young Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is labelled a witch by a rural Zambian community in which she finds herself. In an early scene from I Am Not a Witch, she is taken to a police station where a crowd, thirsts for her blood.
A government official (Henry BJ Phiri) is called in to take control of the situation and he shrewdly finds economic use for Shula, encouraging her to embrace her supernatural side but then going on to make her as powerless as he wants her to be. He fuels his own power and ego by parading Shula around, making a show of identifying lawbreakers through the same manner with which she was labelled a deviant. The justice, of course, is his to be dispensed.
I Am Not a Witch takes extra effort to show how peoples’ lives in these communities can be upended merely on anecdotal circumstances. Nothing has to make sense as seemingly sensible people succumb to their basest instinct once the supernatural is invoked.
Because this is a film about witchcraft and sorcery, Nyoni takes full advantage of the licenses afforded and does not limit herself to the realness of credibility. Since her witches – women whom she showcases in loving, heartbreaking detail – are not allowed to fly, Nyoni’s imagination does so on their behalf and her film becomes a sort of escapist exercise in magical realism that is both funny and tragic, sometimes both in the same breath. One is never quite sure what to expect.
Some of the film’s strongest emotional moments come from observing the bond between Shula and the similarly accused women who have come to represent the only form of love she has received her entire life. They give her her name, fight for her basic rights- as much as they can- and console her when her mind is ultimately broken by the tragedy of her circumstances. Shula gets a brief reprieve when she is enrolled into a makeshift school but she soon discovers that there is nothing fancy about being labelled a witch.
It is easy to identify patriarchy and toxic masculinity as the most pressing factors responsible for putting women and children in unlivable conditions such as these but the women in Nyoni’s estimation are equal opportunity offenders. From the woman who casts the first stone and accuses Shula of sorcery, to the tribal head who is convinced only Shula can send down the rain thus keeping her out of school, and to the wife of Shula’s tormentor, the heroine gets some of the most brutal treatment from members of her sex.
The pacing of I am Not a Witch is unhurried and the picture crisp, as the director favours still shots of outdoor nature locations and close-ups of lead actress Mulubwa who carries the film credibly and gives credibility to her character’s humanity, even when it is obvious she does not quite understand herself. That kind of gift comes naturally.