What is a witch ? Is it an old woman with a broom and wickedness in her eyes ? Or is it an all powerful being that could both grant you anything you want and take everything you love away from you ? Is she a seductress or a gruesome sight ? A victim or a villain ? A true witch, or just a woman in the wrong place at the wrong time ?
In Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not A Witch, the witch is but a girl. She has no name, and no voice either. She doesn’t look like much — just a little girl in a shirt too large for her body and a body too small for the world. She’s not a witch, but it doesn’t matter whether or not she is. The government decided she is one, and so she is. Even the officials are unsure of what to do with her. She’s a little girl, after all. She can’t harm anyone as much as her adult counterparts can, but she could be just as useful. And so they take her to a witch camp.
At first, the witches hiss when they see Mr. Banda bring the frail girl to them. Then they have to resignate themselves, like they always do. They give her a name, sing for her, dance for her. She used to be just a girl without a name. Now, she can be Shula. She has a past, but we’re not invited to learn about it. All that matters for now is the present.
What made these women witches ? Usually not much more than a hunch. They acted strangely, talked too much or not enough. A bucket of water fell when they passed by, someone heard their laugh when the rain stopped falling; and just like that, they are marked for life. The witches are attached to ribbons to keep them from escaping the camp. They work in fields all day. Sometimes, they sing after work. Most of the time, they just go to sleep.
Shula finds some strength in the community at first, and other witches relish in her innocence. But even this newfound happiness can’t last long: Shula becomes a government officer’s protégée, becoming a judge at trials, arbitrarily choosing whoever looks the most guilty. Nothing about this system brings joy to anyone. And yet, it keeps thriving.
The film never wallows in its tragedy. The camera is gentle, letting rays of sunshine illuminate Shula’s bright make-up. The white ribbon controlling all of her movements blends almost seamlessly with the rest of the landscape. Everything would almost seem natural, if it weren’t for the silent tears staining her cheeks.
I Am Not A Witch relentlessly shows how comfortable oppression can get. In the end, the witch camp is never about more than control. Just because they acted strangely once, they are now subject to giving free labour for the rest of their lives. Only a few of them can hope getting out, like Charity who got married to a government official. But even then, their freedom remains under strict conditions: Charity knows that the only reason she’s out of the camp is because of a beautiful face and a lifetime of obeying every one of her husband’s words. The ribbon is no longer attached to her back at all times, but it remains in her room, both as a reminder of a past life, and a threat of a future that is always looming over her.
Is it better to be a witch or to be a goat ? Even the most marginalized categories of women remain within the confines of calculated oppression. And as for the goat ? Yes, she can walk around freely and eat whenever she pleases. But as the older witches quickly remind her, a goat gets killed and eaten. There’s no way to win, and so she stays.
As the tourists arrive at the witch camp, it is clear as day how detached they are to Shula’s world. They consider their filtered pictures gifts, these women’s existence but a fun attraction. Soon, the bus will leave and they will forget. But the witches will remain.
There is a faint, but perceptible wind of change in the air by the time the third act rolls around. Nyoni refuses to depict Zambian life as the romanticized lands completely cut from technology that Western idealists love to imagine. People have television and listen to rap music. This isn’t a film made out of judgement. You only can decide whether to laugh or cry.
Things only are as contradictory as we let them be. There is something off putting about hearing the familiar sounds of ‘American Boy’ on top of an image as foreign as a field full of women tied up as they work. While the film uses its context fully, it doesn’t try to alienate its audience either. This is happening to Shula, but it could be happening to any little girl in the world. The violence she experiences is not the kind that leaves bruises on skin and blood on lips, but it is one we can viscerally feel all the same.
What isn’t a witch ? To some extent, it feels like all women are. Witch narratives have been more prevalent lately, from the horrifying body horror of Suspiria to the teenage madness of The VVitch, while encompassing the sophistication of Anna Biller’s Love Witch. Western cinema has claimed the witch as an iconic figure that represents all that is criticized about womanhood. They are bigger than life, immune to fear, stronger than death.
In I Am Not A Witch, the witch is no longer such a force, but she is still seen as one. While in most recent witch narrative we are shocked by how oblivious other characters can be to the witch’s evil aura, here we are confronted to the exact opposite. These women are all but a danger; yet they will always be treated as such. It is not a pleasant watch, but it is one we needed to see. While there is nothing wrong per se with reclaiming the witch, it is also time to acknowledge that for many, it remains a label that hurts more than empowers. Shula’s voice may remain unheard, but Nyoni’s won’t. I Am Not A Witch is not a film we thought we needed, but it proved itself deeply necessary at every turn.
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