In Nigeria, within Keats State, a Goat was arrested as an armed robbery suspect. A vigilante group apprehended the Goat with the impression that human thief engaging in witchcraft turned himself into an animal to avoid detection. The belief in witchcraft is common in Nigeria and many other parts of Africa to include the country of Zambia–the setting for director Rungano Nyoni new film, I Am Not a Witch. The film as an important message about how vigilante culture, sexism, and colorism, can subjugate women particularly–dark skin women.
I Am Not a Witch is a dark comedy set in contemporary Zambia. Rungano Nyoni’s first directorial effort satirizes the often contradictory nature of traditional beliefs and modern culture. Being exiled after a minor incident in her village, 9-year-old Shula is sent to live at a “witch camp,” and if she tries to escape, she will be transformed into a goat. As she navigates through her new life, she must decide between accepting her fate or risking the consequences of seeking freedom.
It’s no surprise that women are treated as second-class citizens the world over. What I neglected to remember is the harsh labeling that comes with that control. As prevalent witchcraft still is, seemingly anyone can accuse you of being a practitioner. There is no due process here, so once you’re guilty of witchery, you’re sent off to a reform “witch camp” where other witches work menial jobs for no pay. There aren’t many options as a witch. It’s live life as a servant or you’re stoned to death.
Each woman at the camp is tied to a spool of ribbon. If she decides to cut the ribbon and run away, she will turn into a Goat. They are scared to cut the ribbon as they so firmly believe this myth. They are humiliated, put on display as if they are zoo animals, and would rather stay in the camp. Tourists can visit, pay admission, and take selfies, but remain ignorant to the plight of these women because no one questions why they are on display in the first place.
Colorism and respectability politics are other issues Shula must confront. The camp consists only of dark skin women–as if skin color is punishment. In one scene, Shula is sent to use her witch skills to find a village thief in a lineup. She’s unsure who the culprit is, so she calls one of the camp elders for advice. When she asks the elder what to do, the response is, “choose the dark one.” Not surprising in the slightest. It’s a scene that reinforces how dark skin is evil and destructive.
But a witch is a witch, as we see with Bwalya, wife of Police Chief Banda. She explains to Shula that respectability is the way to rise above it all. The woman is also a witch, but respectability through marriage is what “saved” her. Shula thinks Bwalya has knowledge worth learning until she sees the public treat Bwalya the same as any other witch: with hostility. Sure, she doesn’t have to waste away in a reformist witch camp, but she still experiences public scrutiny. Bwalya being light skin is a major reason she’s able to marry into the middle class. That’s obvious to the audience, but for some reason, the film doesn’t address it outright.
After discovering nothing will change, and no one will help, Shula concludes the only release from this life, is death. At the age of 9, she is brave enough to take back the power from her oppressors. Her actions give the camp elders the understanding that they are more powerful than they realize. They yearn for freedom, and learn from Shula about how to make that possible.
Filmmaker Rungano Nyoni has a unique shooting style, however, that method didn’t pair evenly with the content. I’m not sure why the film is labeled as a satirical comedy as there is no way to make oppression funny. But maybe that’s the point? I did appreciate Nyoni’s artistic vision here–if only the themes were more explicit, her style choices wouldn’t have left me feeling so unfulfilled. Thankfully, the story is strong and executed well enough to make up for the faults that exist.
I Am Not a Witch will take you through a range of emotions: sadness, anger, happiness. It might make you shed a tear or two.
This was originally reviewed for the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.