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.
The Video and Audio
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.