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I Am Not a Witch

Film Movement // Unrated // January 22, 2019
List Price: $24.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted February 11, 2019 | E-mail the Author
In present-day Zambia, fear of witches remains high: the public identifies women they believe to be witches, and those women are put into public service by the government, working in the fields with white ribbons attached to big spools preventing them from running away. They are also a tourist attraction, sitting politely for tourists (especially foreigners) who want to gawk and take pictures of these mysterious and supposedly dangerous people. Things change when nine-year-old Shula (Margaret Mulubwa) is charged with witchcraft and put into service, expected to render guilty verdicts in local court cases. Before long, the huckster government agent in charge of Shula's care, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) is exploiting her in order to make money, unaware that Shula increasingly recognizes the unreasonable and unfair paranoia that have changed the course of her life forever.

I Am Not a Witch is the debut feature of Rungano Nyoni, who wrote the script after visiting Zambia and seeing the real-life treatment of women identified as witches, even by members of her own tribe, the Bembas. There is a great hook in the film, both literally and figuratively, in Nyoni's concept of the white ribbon as a visual metaphor, keeping all of these elderly women in place, flapping in the winds as they work in the field. Nyoni uses magical realism to interrogate systems of control, especially those used to oppress and control women of all ages, and critiques the way the fear that governs those systems can easily be exploited by powerful people for capitalist gain. Yet, despite all the pieces being present, I Am Not a Witch doesn't quite click into place, offering a striking universe but lacking some final piece of glue to bring all of Nyoni's ideas together in a compelling story.

In the lead role of Shula, Margaret Mulubwa is perfectly cast, armed with an earnestly expressive face that projects a powerful air of innocence and confusion. Nyoni filters most of the film through Shula's eyes, watching as she processes and reacts to each development in her peculiar incarceration at the same time the audience does. Nyoni taps into the natural curiosity and open-mindedness of children, as Shula approaches each situation without judgment, only to find herself unsettled or unhappy with what she finds. A scene where Shula meets Charity (Nancy Murilo), a former witch now married to Mr. Banda, also serves as a reminder of the carefree childhood Shula ought to be enjoying. Although Mulubwa's effectiveness in the role could be a combination of casting savvy and careful direction, the precision of her performance in key moments suggests otherwise.

Story-wise, Nyoni is less focused, with the film drifting loosely from a semi-comic, semi-depressing police station scene where ridiculous townspeople level their charges of witchcraft at Shula, and then through her slow but quickly elevated journey through the opportunities available for witches, including fieldwork and her eventual position ruling on court cases. Through these sequences, Nyoni briefly touches on a number of fascinating ideas -- the normalcy of the witches trying on fashionable wigs that they might otherwise just buy were they still living their normal lives, the oddly passive nature of accusation in comparison to the permanent condemnation of being a witch, the capitalist prison system, and those gawking tourists, who look at the entire thing as nothing but a quirk of another culture. Although it would've been fascinating to see Nyoni expand on any one of these ideas, it feels more frustrating that they're so disconnected, a collection of like-minded dots that never get connected through the film's story.

Perhaps the weakest element is the film's subplot about droughts in the area, which Nyoni eventually uses to bring the film to a conclusion. Although the ending is admirable in its unwillingness to pull punches, there is a sense that all Nyoni really provides in terms of a conclusion is the idea that the oppression the witches face is nonsense and that they are being exploited and harassed for no reason, which should be evident from the beginning. Nyoni shows extreme promise as a filmmaker, one with a distinct and original voice and ideas to spare, but I Am Not a Witch is an uneven debut, showcasing a talent that will hopefully have plenty of opportunities in the future to refine all of that vision and inspiration into a more cohesive piece of work.

Film Movement went for a bold yellow-and-red color scheme for their American poster, and have retained that artwork for their DVD release, featuring a large image of Margaret Mulubwa's face over a collage-type assembly of scraps, design, and other photos from the film. On the reverse of the sleeve, which shows through the transparent, eco-friendly Amaray case, there is a statement by Film Movement on the selection of the film, and a statement from director Rungano Nyoni on the making of the film. There is also a booklet advertising other Film Movement releases.

The Video and Audio
Presented in 2.39:1 anamorphic widescreen and with a Dolby Digital 5.1 track, I Am Not a Witch looks adequate on DVD. There is a slight softness to the image that occasionally distracts, but colors are generally bright and close-ups are convincingly detailed. No notable instances of banding or artifacting intrude on the presentation. The sound is pretty naturalistic and rarely makes use of the surround channels, but dialogue is rendered crisply and the music is immersive. A Dolby Digital 2.0 track is also included, as well as English subtitles, which are removable.

The Extras
Two extras are included. The more substantial of the two is Mwansa the Great (23:10), Film Movement's customary short film. This one is also by director Rungano Nyoni, featuring a similar tone and style to I Am Not a Witch, and tells a story of a young boy (Samuel Mwale) and his two sisters (Anna Mithi and Lackie Phiri), all of whom are still coping with the death of their father. There is also a brief interview with director Rungano Nyoni (3:17) done for Cannes promotion, where she talks briefly about her inspiration for the film and the process of making it.

Trailers for Rafiki, Antonio Lopez 1979: Sex, Fashion, and Disco, The Third Murder, Bad Lucky Goat, Theeb, and Grigris are included, some of which play before the main menu, along with a promo for Film Movement. No theatrical trailer for I Am Not a Witch is included.

I Am Not a Witch is a striking and frequently compelling movie that feels more like a storm of ideas than a refined work. That said, still recommended, because Nyoni is clearly a talent to watch.

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