By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 11/14/17 – Yesterday afternoon at the A.F.I. Film Festival, I was surprised and quite entertained by a small but very interesting film by Rungano Nyoni – I AM NOT A WITCH (UK/France, 2017), shot in Zambia in a traditional African village. Rungano Nyoni’s debut film is a defiantly uncategorizable mix of superstition, satire and social anthropology, it tells the story of a small Zambian girl who is denounced as a witch and exiled to a witch camp, where she is alternately exploited and embraced. Following a banal incident in her local village, 8-year old girl Shula is accused of witchcraft. After a short trial she is found guilty, taken into state custody and exiled to a witch camp in the middle of a desert. At the camp she takes part in an initiation ceremony where she is shown the rules surrounding her new life as a witch. Like the other residents, Shula is tied to a ribbon which is attached to a coil that perches in a large tree. She is told that should she ever cut the ribbon, she’ll be cursed and transformed into a goat.
Shula is not a witch, of course, because such things do not exist, but she is a mystery, especially since the director paints her with very little in the way of characterization or understandable motivation. Rather like her treatment by the entrepreneur manager John Tembo and by the community that seems to get some catharsis from her denouncement, Shula is a means to an end, a vessel around which Nyoni gathers disparate fragments and impressions. Nyoni herself is a young Zambian-born Welsh woman, who was inspired to tell this story following a research trip to a witch camp in Ghana, and her film is a similar admixture of points of view and perspectives. So while there is a definite critique of the visiting tourists and their prurience, there are also scenes that smack of a tourist’s attitude. Mostly it feels like we’re being asked to empathize with the plight of a little girl being victimized by a cruel society that targets and exploits the vulnerable (or the merely unpopular) in the name of traditions they may or may not actually believe in.
This debut film has high production value, with its souring magical score which opens with Vivaldi, as well as its impressive cinematography. DP David Gallego’s cinematography remains an organic source of wonder. Best known for his deliciously rich monochrome work on Ciro Guerra’s EMBRACE OF THE SERPENT (Colombia, 2016) here he works in full, if controlled, color and some of the shots he gets, especially exploring the billowy potential of those long white streamers, have an alien, Hou Hsiao-hsien level of considered fascination.