Or: Witches be cray.
We round out May-hem Month with this beauty from Rungano Nyoni, Zambian-born turned Welsh national and first time film maker. I don’t know how Jill feels about this one yet but I can certainly say this may be the jewel in the crown as far as this month is concerned, and it’s been a pretty eclectic month.
I Am Not a Witch (2017)
Following a banal incident in her local village, 8-year old girl Shula is accused of witchcraft.
8-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) wanders around her local village silently and apparently aimlessly. As she doesn’t appear to have any family, friends or home – and appeared out of nowhere one day, the locals are convinced she’s a witch. Especially since they claim that odd things started happened as soon as she arrived. When a local woman falls down whilst carrying a bucket of water and blames Shula, she is taken away to a government-funded witch camp (which sounds kind of fun actually).
To give you an idea of the kind of court ruling we are dealing with here: the determining factor of whether Shula is a witch or not is the dance of a dead chicken, conducted by a real life witch doctor. If he dies inside a small circle of salt, Shula is not a witch, if he dies outside, well you get the picture.
The camp itself is part work camp, part tourist attraction where holiday makers snap pictures of the witches who gurn good-naturedly for the cameras. Each witch is strapped to a spindle of ribbon that keeps them from flying away. When they fly they go killing according to local lore.
Shula tries to run away on the first day but that night is welcomed by the other witches via the medium of song and is given a choice – cut her own ribbon and risk being turned into a goat or stay grounded and accept that she’s a witch. A no-brainer you could say. So Shula adapts and even seems happy when some of the more seasoned witches take her under their wings. One even lectures her on the importance of education and teaches her how to eavesdrop on lessons being taught at the local schools.
Shula is nameless until she meets the other witches – they give her this moniker because it means ‘uprooted’. Just as our girl is getting her bearings, she is taken away from her new community and on the road by a government official. She is required to use her witchy powers to point out the guilty party in minor legal disputes and make TV appearances, among other duties.
The same official also allows her into his home and reveals something of a secret to her at the same time, that his own wife is also a witch who has gained respectability through marriage. The official’s wife makes it clear that if Shula desires the same life then she has to do as she’s told at all times.
Well, it might please you to learn that Shula does not roll that way and slowly but surely starts to push against these new responsibilities. Her rebellion drives her new ‘guardian’ mad and as she refuses to make it rain (literally) and shows him up in front of an important ‘white man’, both Shula and his wife are threatened with being cast back to where they came from.
Will Shula return to whence she came or does the universe have something more divine in store for her? Well, this is a five-star movie in my opinion so it would be cool if you saw it yourself but let’s just say that the ending is stark and incredibly haunting – and I sort of felt destroyed afterwards.
IANAW is by no means a bleak and brittle piece though. It is handled with a sense of humour that works incredibly alongside the severity of Shula’s story. Her tale if you think about it is completely farcical, with these women condemned on hearsay alone but it is also based on actual stories of witchcraft in Zambia.
There’s a lot to be said about the treatment of women here too, of how flimsy the evidence is against them and of how they are treated by society. While some are lucky enough to be ‘rescued’ from their fates, they must conform to a very strict code in order to stay saved and the ultimate goal is respectability. A very boring goal indeed.
The film looks gorgeous and the performances are wicked. Especially Maggie Mulubwa as Maggie, a non-actor who nails her soulful performance with hardly any dialogue. We never really get to the bottom of her true story but the ending suggests that perhaps there is something in the folklore after all.
Basically I loved every minute, it’s fucking brilliant.