Last weekend I joined a few hundred other people in Lusaka at the movies to watch (no, not Black Panther for the fourth time, not a Wrinkle in Time, it’s not on our circuit yet) I Am not A Witch. The movie is directed by a Zambian-Welsh Rungano Nyoni; it is her second award-winning film, the first being the short film Mwansa the Great, which was released in 2011. I Am not A Witch recently — in 2018 — won a BAFTA Award for Outstanding Debut for a British Writer, Director or Other. This is a big deal!
I Am not A Witch is a satirical take on witchcraft in Africa — how it’s viewed, how witches are treated. It also deals with, in a not-satirical manner, how women are treated.
The movie tells the story of a young girl, Shula, who is accused of being a witch. The community shuns Shula and she is sent to a witch camp to live with her kind.
We don’t know much about Shula when the story begins, but her isolation and aloneness is palpable. The story unravels to reveal more about Shula but events shape her too.
What did I love about this movie?
- I think the director has a good eye, she framed the scenes very well.
- She chose her actors well — many (or all, I’m not 100% sure) were novice actors. Cast members were: Maggie Mulubwa, Gloria Huwiler, Henry B.J. Phiri, and Nancy Murilo, among others. The material wasn’t easy to work with, but I think the actors rose to the occasion and gave wonderful performances. Ms Nyoni chose not to make the actors repeat scenes a great deal, so some mistakes — very tiny mistakes — are noticeable in the film, but the actors carry the story so well, that you’re not caught up on those minor errors. The girl who played Shula was young at the time of shooting, so asking her to remember a great number of lines and then perform actions too might have been quite a bit to ask. Thankfully, Shula’s dialogue was minimal so she concentrated more on the performance. This also worked really well for the story because she is a disconnected child, and it came out in the acting.
- The colour palette worked beautifully. At times I thought the film had this old-ish feel, because there were moments when the colour seemed washed out. It didn’t look bad at all to me, but added depth to the overall picture.
- Location — honestly, this could have taken place in any African country. The locations were very minimalist, so don’t give away a lot in terms of where the story could be happening. It’s subtle but very clever. However, there is the scene with the police officer which shows a uniform that we Zambians know is that of the police service.
- Which brings me to the one thing that I can’t stop thinking about — the only identifier in this movie was language. The dialogue is mostly in Bemba with some Nyanja, and that is the only thing that tells us this is in Zambia. Otherwise, this could be happening in any African country and because some rural communities are so isolated, it’s not such a far-fetched idea that the things happening to Shula and the other women could be real.
I went to see the movie with my mother-in-law and my sister, who both really enjoy the more artistic type of cinema. I think going with people like this helps add to the enjoyment of the film —choose your company well!
The movie only screened for two nights, but hopefully there’ll be opportunity for others to view it on other formats, because it has to be celebrated here in Zambia, not just in Europe and the UK.
Congratulations Rungano! Looking forward to the next one.