Steadily paced and determinedly arthouse, this debut feature by Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni won’t be for everyone, but give yourself over to its spell and you’ll be rewarded with a fiercely original satire full of social comment, deadpan laughs and striking images.
At the heart of I Am Not a Witch’s curious tale is eight-year-old orphan Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), accused by her townspeople of being a witch for no other reason than she’s a touch quiet and happens to be nearby when a woman drops her bucket of water.
Shulu’s exile is brought to the attention of public official Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), who spies an opportunity and packs Shulu off to witch camp, a shabby settlement on the outskirts of town that’s inhabited by ancient women considered a burden by their families. Here, Shula has a wide white ribbon fastened to her back, with the other end attached to an oversized spool (imagine the BFG's sewing kit) to ensure she can roam only fixed distances and be reeled back as befits the authorities. Her freedom stolen, Shula is put to work in the fields, while her supposed witchcraft skills are used to catch criminals and entice rain from parched skies. She’s even thrust onto TV chat shows to drum up interest – gawking tourists are a tidy earner.
Playing out like some dystopian sci-fi but directed with some of the simplicity, unhurried patience, and observation for dirt-poor rural life that informs another tale focused on a child’s harsh existence, Pather Panchali (which itself featured in Cannes, in 1956), I Am Not a Witch lulls you with its gentle rhythms of everyday life. And yet it’s also stylised in places, boasts a soundtrack featuring Vivaldi and Estelle’s ‘American Boy’, and glints with wicked humour as Nyoni highlights corruption and incompetence, misogyny and dogma. The satire, in places, is a little scattershot and heavy-handed, but stops short of strident moralising.
Remarkably, witch camps such as these exist in Africa, though are often less organised than the one depicted here; a key reason Nyoni chose to heighten the action is to prevent her fable from being taken as fact. This mix of fact and fiction makes for an uncommonly fresh debut, and the timing of I Am Not a Witch’s showing in the Directors’ Fortnight could not be better – with the Elisabeth Moss starring The Handmaid’s Tale garnering raves and a UK showing on Channel 4, this makes for a fascinating companion piece on female persecution.