I Am Not A Witch: NZIFF Review
Muted and yet surprisingly moving in its final moments, debut director Ryungano Nyoni's I Am Not A Witch is the tale of Shula, a girl living in Zambia.
The nine-year old is accused of witchcraft and hauled in front of local authorities, where the policewoman in charge is regaled with tales of her witchiness, including how she hacked off one man's arm with an axe (even though he tells the story with both arms intact.)
As the will of the village is to condemn her as a witch, Shula is sent to be part of the witch's community, an ostracised sect that live with ribbons tied to their backs, and whose freedom is held in check by giant rollers that go wherever they go.
But Shula's "powers" are questioned when she's asked to preside in a trial over a theft, and to identify the thief. Apparently being blessed with the sight, Shula's showered with gifts of gratitude, some of which are taken by her charge, the corrupt government official Mr Banda and the rest which are given to the remaining members of her witch's community.
However, Shula herself begins to resist the idea of being pigeonholed as something she is clearly not....
I Am Not A Witch is mournful and despite offering some obviously comic moments, Nyoni's film has depressing overtones for the world we currently live in. With Trump's America and The Handmaid's Tale clearly ringing in our collective ears, it's hard not to view I Am Not A Witch as some kind of rejoinder to this state of current global affairs. And while Nyoni's view is that the film mocks the Zambian way of life, it's heartbreaking to see the nine-year-old girl caught up in a world which literally shackles the women around it, in an overt form of slavery.
In among all this, Margaret Mulubwa's turn as quiet little Shula makes the film quite poignant and ultimately impressively moving. Whether it's dealing with a tourist who just wants a picture with the witch as she sits dejected in a totem she's been placed in for days or simply watching the village harangue and turn against her early on, Mulubwa's eyes do it all.
And while some of the scenes feel a little stretched and could have been excised, there's no denying the final sequence's power and imagery. Throughout I Am Not A Witch, Nyoni imbues the screen with some powerful shots and some simple images that speak volumes. It's here the power and tragedy of I Am Not A Witch emerges.
Bittersweet, sad and scathing of Zambia, Nyoni's I Am Not A Witch really does have a way of casting a spell on you that you'd perhaps not expect.