i am not a witch 

REVIEW BY SIOMHA MCQUINN

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Although it is fitting that a film with ‘witch’ in the title should be released in October, the delights found in I Am Not A Witch are gained from deadpan, satirical humour as opposed to supernatural, spooky spectacles. In Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature film the presence of a young, unidentified girl (Maggie Mulubwa) causes so much unrest in a small Zambian village that she is branded as a witch. As such she is moved to a witch camp filled with older women who do manual labour while tethered to spools with ribbon. They live this way because their alternative is to turn into a goat. The ‘witches’ name her Shula and with her new-found identity she encounters what it means to be in cahoots with the spirits while reconciling this power with her status as a little girl.  

I Am Not A Witch juxtaposes life in a Zambian village with Western society, often in very humorous ways. For example the costuming goes from one extreme to another. In the beginning Shula innocently wears a t-shirt with ‘#bootycall’ printed on it while later she is publicly paraded around in elaborate ‘witch’ attire to disguise the fact that she is simply a little girl. This suggests that there is a reluctance within both societies to allow women and girls to define themselves. In the first scene the camera situates the audience with a group of tourists in a van which pulls up to a fenced off area, behind which a group of older women sit stoically. The tourists ask questions and display a polite curiosity while they treat the women like zoo animals. The observational style of this sequence is soon discarded for a more intimate look at the kind of society which produces this form of attraction. After the film’s titles the women, now exhibiting frenzied behaviour,  are framed in a close up suggesting that there is more than meets the eye with these women and this society.

The premise of the film is reminiscent of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster which similarly deals with the threat of turning into an animal at the failure to conform to society’s expectations and this is not where the comparison ends. Both films, each having appeared at Cannes Film Festival, are similar in tone. I Am Not A Witch is funny and absurd while simultaneously being understated and pensive. Like The Lobster it is a film that will appeal to an audience who are looking for a cinematic experience outside of the norm and is likely to stick with the viewer after the credits.