She chooses to say she is a witch and is taken to live in a ‘witch camp’.
At the witch camp Shula is cared for and encouraged by the other women who all remain attached to long white ribbons at all times lest they fly away. Tourists arrive by minibus to leer at them as a local attraction and they’re loaned out to work long hours for someone else’s benefit.
Shula is spotted by a local government official Mr Banda (Henry BJ Phiri) who uses her as his personal mascot. Tasked with performing small psychic feats and miracles, she’s both hated and revered by those around her until life as a witch takes a turn for the worse.
Director Rungano Nyoni’s debut feature is at times very funny, at others uncomfortable to watch. As a white westerner I sometimes didn’t know which elements were based on simple truth and which were exaggerated for satirical comment.
But the idea of women and girls being labelled as witches and having to live in places that are part refuge, part prison is hard to swallow.
The label of witch seems to be a real identity to some of the women. But there is also a suggestion that they are just embracing a supportive community of outcasts in the midst of a misogynistic world rather than particularly believing themselves to be actual mystical witches.
At one point Shula is paraded on television in full regalia, contrasting with the modern TV studio setting. The host states “We’re claiming that she’s a witch, but what if she’s actually just a child” and a tear rolls down her face silently as her keeper Mr Banda stumbles to find an answer.
There is a bone dry sense of humour running through the film. At times laugh-out-loud, at others so steeped in satire you may laugh but you’ll feel uncomfortable doing so.
But this isn’t a pure comedy. There is a deep sadness to Shula’s life. Mulubwa presents a silent maturity in her performance that comes across as powerfully soulful. Shula is after all captive and exploited which makes you consider how much worse the alternative would have been. Or whether she just needed somewhere to belong and a roof to sleep under.
You can see Shula’s childhood being stolen away as she occasionally glimpses what she’s missing. As she listens to a happy sounding classroom scene far away the noises become loud and clear. It brings a rare smile to her face before the sound cuts in an instant and she’s suddenly back in the field.
For a brief and beautiful moment she interacts with other outcast children around her own age. Children with disabilities or visible difference learn together outdoors.
Devastatingly, Shula quickly dragged back to the witch camp by her ribbon.
The long bright white ribbons that stop the women from flying away lend themselves so well to the stunning cinematography of David Gallego.
If one of the women wanted to leave they could easily cut the ribbon and walk away. But that fact just adds an extra dimension to the starkly visible reminder that they are essentially prisoners, just without bars. They are tethered by a society that has cast them out and treats them as dangerous. They are also tied together, united in their own community.
Some incredibly impactful scenes are when white tourists go to visit the witches. They react with a patronising curiosity, taking their photographs. They coo as though at a zoo and ask stupid questions about the witches. But these are human beings – this is sullen 9-year old girl not a local spectacle to be leered over then left behind.
Viewers are reminded of voluntourism, colonial attitudes or the white saviour complex. The tourist baby-talks Shula, saying she’ll cheer up if she has her picture taken.
Local customs and traditions are to be respected as valid and equal to any other. But to participate in the captivity and abuse of women and girls as a tourist attraction is wrong.
The hard hitting drama, satire, fairytale and humour in this film create a unique blend that is hard to walk away from unaffected. I just wish I knew more about the customs and traditions shown in order to understand “I Am Not A Witch” in an even richer way.
Hi, I'm Caz. I live in Edinburgh and I watch a lot of films. My reviews focus mainly on women in film - female directors or how women are represented on screen.