A 9-year-old girl named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is accused of being a witch after a villager carrying a bucket of water trips and sees the young girl standing in the middle of the road staring at her.
Next, a man from the village recalls how the little girl flew around and hit him in the arm with an ax causing all his blood to splash out on the ground. He then admits that it was all a dream, but the preposterous story is enough to get Shula exiled to a witch camp in the satirical film “I Am Not a Witch” from Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni.
Those unfamiliar with African culture may be shocked to find out witch camps exist. The deeply religious continent where traditional mythology coexists alongside Christianity and Islam is a hotbed for accused witches.
In Ghana, 2,000 miles from where Nyoni was born, there exists one of the oldest witch camps in the world where women are segregated from their village on the suspicion of practicing black magic. Nyoni spent a month in the camp, which inspired her feature film debut, but the writer-director is quick to point out that “I Am Not A Witch” is a fairy tale that satirizes genuine fears by some of the country’s residents the way Stanley Kubrick’s “Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” satirized Cold War jitters.
The film opens on a dirt road outside of Zambia’s capital city Lusaka, where a busload of tourists head toward the area’s biggest attraction, the witch camp where dozens of women resembling inmates wearing blue uniforms sit on the ground in a fenced-in area. Their faces are decorated with white paint, and each woman is tethered to a large white ribbon, which according to the tour guide is a precautionary measure that keeps the witches from flying away and killing people.
The folklore states that if the witches try and cut the ribbon to escape, they will be turned into goats thanks to voodoo performed by the local witch doctor.
At first glance, the sedate women resemble a group of grandmothers gathered to play a round of bingo, but the tourists signal showtime and so the ladies begin to howl and act insane, a move straight out of the P.T. Barnum playbook.
After a quick trial at the local police precinct, 9-year-old Shula (meaning “uprooted one”) is found guilty of witchcraft by the paranoid villagers, so the minister of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phir), is called in to stake his claim on the young girl as a soldier for the country.
All the witches in the camp see themselves as government employees. They earn wages and get food and board in exchange for manual labor in the fields and an occasional spell to help end the drought. They also get protection from the residents who blame the witches for everything that goes wrong.
Despite the heavy subject matter, Nyoni manages to keep the film balanced and entertaining with a heavy dose of satire.
Phir’s bumbling Mr. Banda is reminiscent of Buddy the elf’s Gimbel’s boss, played by Faizon Love in 2003’s “Elf,” while newcomer Maggie Mulubwa as the subdued child witch barely utters a word.
The deadpan performances by both actors set the film’s comedic tone as absurdity develops all around them. The film sways from laugh out loud moments to small doses of humor, like the fact that little Shula walks around in a ragged shirt that reads #bootycall.
In another scene, a makeshift courtroom is set up outdoors to find a thief who stole money from a grandfather. Shula is brought in to use her witch powers to point out the culprit, but the proceeding keeps getting interrupted by the grandfather’s cellphone, which keeps playing a techno version of “Old MacDonald,” complete with rooster sound effects.
The soundtrack ranges from the classical “Four Seasons” by Vivaldi to Estelle’s 2008 pop hit “American Boy,” which are well-placed for maximum impact.
Cinematographer David Gallego, who beautifully shot the black-and-white film “Embrace of the Serpent” in 2015, works with full color this time around to capture the dry Zambian climate with subdued tones of reddish yellow. The bland landscape is intensified with eruptions of vibrant color from the witches clothing or their wigs, which have been molded after pop stars Rihanna and Beyoncé.
“I Am Not a Witch” marks an impressive debut by Nyoni. The dark comedy generates laughs but never without losing grasp of the weighty issues at hand.
When the film takes a dramatic turn it’s done so quickly that it’s jarring to the audience, a miscalculation by the writer-director but nonetheless a stunning debut.