Film Movement Movie Review: I Am Not a Witch (2017)

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Fascinated by the way that "accusations of witchcraft [are] almost always aimed at women," Welsh writer/director Rungano Nyoni returned to her birthplace of Zambia for her years-in-the-making feature filmmaking debut, I Am Not a Witch.

A fiery mix of fact and feminist fairy tale, the tragicomic Witch, which was made using nonprofessional actors and cinematic techniques reminiscent of Von Trier, Fellini, and the Italian neorealists, deftly satirizes the power and gender politics at play in a Zambia witch camp where an eight-year-old unidentified orphan girl (later dubbed Shula) is sent after villagers label her a witch.

In a Kubrickian opening sequence set to the first movement of Vivaldi's "Winter," gawking tourists snap photos of witches posed entirely for their benefit. Each witch connected to a lengthy spool of ribbon to tether them to the camp where they live (or fields where they work for the government and seemingly without pay), the image is a hard one to shake and at the end of its ninety-three minute running time, in a simple yet unforgettable final shot, Nyoni casts those spools in a whole new light.

Chosen as England's official submission for the Best Foreign Language Film category of the Academy Awards, Witch ushers in a vital new voice and visual storyteller whom I predict we’ll be watching for years to come.

Narratively inspired by the French fairy tale Chèvre de Mr Seguin (aka Mr. Seguin's Goat), Nyoni stresses throughout the production notes of this Film Movement theatrical release that her work is much closer to fiction than reality. 

Yet, the film's powerful, unstudied performances and largely improvised dialogue from a cast of performers who'd never been in front of a movie camera before make it difficult to separate from contemporary neorealism inspired fare including Ponette, Children of Heaven, City of God, or Osama.

And this becomes that much harder given both Nyoni's decision to root the work in enough authenticity that it won't fly away like a witch off her spool of ribbon as well as the knockout performance of young lead Maggie Mulubwa (who was photographed by Nyoni's husband during a location scout, later necessitating the crew to go back with the picture to try and track her down).

Centering your film on a child largely alone and suddenly thrust into a situation beyond her control wherein Shula and the camp’s state guardian from the Ministry of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) is exploiting her "powers" for money in exchange for promises of rain in the middle of a drought, for example, immediately brings out the viewer’s inner protector.

Needless to say we want to shield the girl who is forced to declare herself a witch or else be turned into a goat. Helplessly we watch as Shula first enjoys the sense of camaraderie with the other witches as well as the pride of bringing back a basket of gifts for identifying a criminal (essentially through a random guess).

Things change quickly however when she discovers not only the hypocrisy of Banda but also the cruel way she and fellow witches are treated out in public and especially the threats leveled at them, which seem just as (if not more) dangerous than being turned into a goat.

With roughly ninety percent of the film told through the largely silent Shula’s eyes, there are times when we wish that Witch could’ve provided us with a better developed secondary character to expand Nyoni's fascinating landscape even more and Nyoni attempts that with a female character one would never have guessed had been a witch.

But as Shula's story first and foremost and moreover, as a poetic fairy tale about an Alice or Dorothy sent to a gritty, exploitative, satirical Wonderland or Oz wherein sadly there's no place for them to call home this approach works very well.

Driving home her point in the end with an understated, near dialogue-free, show don't tell sequence, Nyoni casts a captivating spell over viewers who – like the tourists getting off the bus in Witch's beginning – are sure to be eager to see more from a director at the top of her form.

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