In Zambia, nine-year-old Shula's (Maggie Mulubwa) life is turned upside down when a government official exiles her to a witch camp with others like her to exploit her innocence for his own purposes. Shula is told that if she tries to escape she'll be turned into a goat, but the young girl chafes, itching to tell everyone "I Am Not a Witch."
Writer/director Rungano Nyoni's first feature delivers a powerful feminist message as magical realism, a piece of political folklore resounding through generations. The Zambian born, Welsh raised Nyoni (her film has been submitted as the UK's Foreign Language submission for the 2019 Oscars) got the idea after reading about accusations of witchcraft during a dry Zambian summer with failing crops and stayed at a witch camp to inform her script. Her extremely photogenic young star was found in pictures taken by Nyoni's husband while location scouting.
The film opens with a busload of tourists being taken to a witch camp, where they can gawk and take pictures at women they are assured are harmless because of the ribbons attached to their backs which prevent them from flying. Elsewhere, in a small village a woman is reporting a young girl to Officer Josephine (Nellie Munamonga) as a witch. No one knows where this girl came from, she says, but her standing in a path caused the woman to stumble, spilling a pail of water. The policewoman appears to be skeptical, especially when a drunken man implies he saw the girl fly, but when the young girl refuses to confirm or deny the accusations, she calls government official Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri).
Banda takes the call in his bath, where he's being attended to by an attractive young wife we will later learn is also one of his 'witches.' He's in a hurry to pick up the child and we learn why. A small wooden apparatus resembling an ox's yoke is attached to her back with a wide heavy ribbon affixed to it, the other end a giant spool from which she can reeled in and out. The older witches take her under their wings, naming her Shula, and we discover Banda's racket isn't only tourism, but slave field labor. The older witches decide Shula should not be in the fields (child witches are unheard of) so Banda decks her out in costume, giant seed pods affixed to her hair, her body encased in what looks like a giant beige moiré silk drawstring bag, to aid in deciding court cases.
The striking Mulubwa says little while taking in everything, her focused gaze suggesting accusations of her own. When faced with a string of accused men, she calls her 'grandmother' for advice and recoils in shock when told to 'pick the dark one' During an interview on Smooth Talk with Banda, her only comment is the tears running down her face. After a caller suggests Banda is using her and that she should be in school, she enjoys a brief spate of normal life until Banda's protestations about the law requiring her education shrivel under the demands of a tribal queen. Cinematographer David Gallego ("Embrace of the Serpent") finds multiple ways to highlight Mulubwa, never more affecting than when his camera follows her as she's 'reeled in' from school.
Nyoni concludes her tale with the events which inspired it, the young witch held accountable for a lack of rain. Mulubwa's frantic dance is mesmerizing, but the rain comes too late (thankfully Nyoni chooses to keep violence off screen yet never fails to communicate it). Her and Gallego's final image is a stunner.
Robin gives "I Am Not a Witch" a B.
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