Recently released in theaters, I Am Not a Witch bears all the marks of a promising auteur. The debut feature of 35-year-old Zambian director Rungano Nyoni, it was described as “unmissable” at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. Set in a remote Zambian community, its protagonist is a 9-year-old girl named Shula who is accused by village locals of being a witch. She is given a choice: to be exiled to a traveling witch camp or “turned into a goat” (a death threat disturbingly cloaked in the language of fairytale).
Rungano Nyoni was born in Zambia, but her parents moved to Wales when she was eight. Initially planning to become an actress, she earned her master’s in screen performance from Central St. Martins University. When she realized she’d rather be working behind the camera, she enrolled in film school at the University of the Arts London and began writing and directing full-time.
Critical attention quickly came her way. She went on to author several award-nominated and award-winning shorts, including The List, Mwansa the Great (her first film set in Zambia), The Mass of Men, and Listen, her collaboration with Finnish-Iranian director, Hamy Ramezan, which qualified for an Oscar and brought issues of anti-Muslim discrimination to the fore. In 2013, she was selected for Cannes’ Cinéfondation Residency program, which financed the early development stages of I Am Not a Witch.
Before writing the script for her feature film, Nyoni visited a witch community in Ghana, where witchcraft accusations are even more prevalent than in her native Zambia. Working from her firsthand encounter, she recreated the strange and little-known reality of these camps to stunning effect. Her film’s most unforgettable shots show the “witches” tethered to the government-run campsite by giant reels of white ribbon (“in case they try to fly away.”) Meanwhile, the occasional tourist group arrives with cameras in tow to gape at their condition, pitying their subjugation while never really seeing them as human. Nyoni shows how these women are stigmatized and exotically exhibited and yet, paradoxically enough, spared from persecution by their own villages. Taking aim at African superstitions, Western complacency, societal sexism, and state ineptitude, the film dissects the witch camp apparatus with a sense of sweeping satire and incisiveness that is reminiscent of Ousmène Sembène. While the critical response has focused on its feminist dimension, there are a great many angles from which to view I Am Not a Witch.
Nyoni herself has said in interviews that she originally conceived her film as a fable about the price of freedom rather than as an overt attack on misogyny. The choice Shula faces – to join the witch camp or be “turned into a goat” – was inspired by the French fairytale “La Chèvre de monsieur Seguin” (“Mr. Seguin’s Goat”), about a little goat who yearns to flee her imprisonment on a farm and escape to the mountains, but knows that if she does, she could be eaten by a wolf. Desire for freedom and fear of death – these are the conflicting impulses that define Shula’s condition as a captive witch.
By structuring the film’s critique around a fairytale, Nyoni is able to foreground her nine-year-old protagonist in a uniquely captivating way. Shula is played by Maggie Mulubwa, a young Zambian girl the crew had encountered by accident while location scouting and whom Nyoni insisted on casting even after going through no fewer than 1,000 auditions. A former actress herself, she did well to trust her instincts. Mulubwa carries the film brilliantly, her eyes echoing a mix of vulnerability, defiance, and observation that is wise beyond her years. She is the human core of these otherworldly witch-camps and puts us in touch with a shocking present-day reality that no filmmaker has yet dared to penetrate.