The title of this movie drew me in: Was it a declaration? A denial? A defense? At the end of the screening I attended, the director and writer, Rungano Nyoni, said she was first embarrassed by her title, because it struck her as an overheated, reminiscent of a Lifetime movie. But over time, she said, she grew to love it, and it became a feminist mantra: “I am not a witch!” The idea of a woman being accused of witchcraft is, on the one hand ridiculous, but the idea of women as irrational and in need of control is very much alive in cultures across the world.
In Nyoni’s remarkable debut, an orphaned girl is singled out as witch for no discernible reason. She stands trial, sort of, and then is brought to meet a group of older women who are known to be witches. There, she is given the choice: she can be a goat or a witch. She chooses witch. The women teach her how to fulfill her duties, and soon she is taken in by a government official, who is married to a witch. The married witch gives her further pointers. Throughout these lessons, the girl barely says a word. And she never says the one thing you hope she will say: “I am not a witch.”
The witches in this film are marked and identified by large spools of white fabric, to which they are leashed. It’s very difficult to describe the impact of this prop, but it’s both funny and haunting, and one of the many visual elements that make this film so striking. The spools and white fabric are so fully integrated into the world of the film that you begin to accept them, in the same way that the characters do. After a while, the restraining ribbons don’t even seem that strange—until suddenly they reappear in a different context, and their existence jolts you all over again. There were times when the shots of the women attached to their giant spools reminded me of an art installation, because they were so beautiful, strange, and symbolic. At other times, the spools reminded me of fairy tales like Rapunzel, or the one about the woman with the string around her neck, stories in which women are bound in mysterious ways.
In the Q&A—which I keep referring to because it was unusually informative—Nyoni said she was inspired by a fairy tale about a goat, who is tied up with by a rope. He can only run a certain distance and then he can’t go any farther. He asks his farmer to free him to run over the mountain, and the farmer says that if he goes over the mountain, he will encounter a wolf. The goat decides to take his chances and indeed, he does meet the wolf, who kills him. But before he meets the wolf, he gets to run free on the mountain and see the sunrise. So, was it worth it?
A fable about a goat wasn’t the fairy tale I was expecting but it makes sense that a story about the price of freedom would be the point of inspiration for this movie that asks how and if women can find freedom in a patriarchal society. In writing that, I worry that I’m making this movie sound heavy-handed and depressing, when actually, it’s quite funny and often playful. One of the things that keeps it buoyant is Nyoni’s use of non-professional actors, including its child star, Maggie Mulubwa. When Nyoni described her casting process, I was surprised by how many actors she found when she wasn’t officially looking. For instance, when casting the wife-witch—a particularly memorable characters—Nyoni found herself standing next to her when she was watching a fashion show. Mulubwa was discovered by a crew member who took a photo of her and brought it to Nyoni. Casting is always important, but when using non-professional actors your eye has to be impeccable, and Nyoni’s is.
Although the film is shot in Zambia, the country is not named, and Nyoni said that she did this purposefully, so as not to invoke any specific traditions or customs. Instead, she wanted to invoke the casual nature of superstition throughout Africa, and all over the world. For me, the landscape helped to ground the fairy tale elements, as well as Nyoni’s unsettling mix of realism and satire. This is a movie worth seeing in the theater, if you can. Otherwise, look for it to stream in a few months–and keep an eye on whatever Nyoni decides to do next.