Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature, the story of a girl in Zambia accused of witchcraft, is comic, tragic – and captivatingly beautiful
In a remote Zambian village, a nine-year-old girl (Margaret Mulubwa) is accused of being a witch and given a stark choice: to accept her supernatural branding and live a tethered life as a sorceress, or to cut her ties with local tradition and be transformed into a goat that may be killed and eaten for supper. Thus begins this bewilderingly strange yet terrifically sure-footed feature debut from writer-director Rungano Nyoni. Born in Zambia and part-raised in Wales, Nyoni first made international waves with such award-winning shorts as Mwansa the Great (2011) and Listen (2014). Now, this daringly satirical parable of magic and misogyny, superstition and social strictures confirms her promise as a film-maker of fiercely independent vision, with a bright future ahead.
Unsurprisingly opting to embrace her supernatural status, the young heroine of I Am Not a Witch is sent to the local “witch camp”, an enslaved tourist attraction. Here, the women offer a sense of community and protection to the all-but-silent newcomer, whom they name Shula (“it means ‘to be uprooted’”). But when government official Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri) declares that “you are my little witch now”, a strange form of celebrity looms. Soon, Shula is being paraded around local courts and TV stations, dispensing divine justice and hawking magical eggs – all for the profit of her garrulous keeper. “What if she’s actually just a child?” asks the presenter of the Smooth Talk chatshow, a question that is met with stony silence from her “state guardian”.