THERE IS AN unequivocal boldness to the premise suggested by Rungano Nyoni’s film I am not a Witch, which was chosen to open this year’s European film festival on the art film circuit. By dint of its title, it ticks a number of boxes which are geared to make you want to see it. You think, immediately of the witch issue in Zambia, where the film is based. You think of Arthur Miller’s Crucible and the contemporary symbolism and horror that a witch hunt connotes. But sadly, you get nothing of that discursive energy in this film.
Don’t get me wrong: it’s a beautifully photographed film featuring characters and stills that will take your breath away and make you want to grab at those moments and freeze them. But this tale of a little girl of 9 named Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is violent and frightening but has no back story. The witches are women tossed out of conventional society and they’re painted in a particular way. They’re also attached to long white ribbons on great wooden reels which lend them a sense of whimsy as it is understood to attach them to the ground and prevent them from flying away.
You never do get to understand why this woebegone child who always looks uncomfortable and frightened, has been deemed a witch, where she comes from or what she thinks of the scenario, and you might feel tempted to close your head to the story and just look at the beautiful pictures, and yet there’s a bit of a profound denouement, which makes you sit bolt upright and consider, what if this little one is just an ordinary child? But alas, that line is allowed to sink, uninterrupted, like a lead balloon.
In this work, which is a series of vignettes rather than a story that flows with ease, you are exposed to an unsophisticated society and you’re not given to understand how much of this tale is dinkum Zambian culture and how much has been quirkily fictionalised. You might have read of the persecution of Zambian witches in the news, but at no point do the story tellers in this film give you to understand whether you’re looking at a beautiful if troubling fantasy or a document with real value.
It seems a strange starting point for this film festival, as this Bemba with English subtitles is obscure and unsophisticated in its filmic values. Other works in the programme include Claire Denis’s Let the Sun Shine In, which features the marvellous Juliette Binoche, an Austrian period drama about a blind Viennese pianist called Mademoiselle Paradis and a foray into the horror of social media, directed by Dutch filmmaker Ben Brand, called Find This Dumb Little B*tch and Throw her into a River, amongst others.
- I am not a Witch is directed and written by Rungano Nyoni and features a cast headed by Boyd Banda, Kalundu Banda, Brisky, Patricia Carreira, Patricia Chaambwa, Mureene Chaba, Janet Chaile, Felix Chibole, Chichi, Martha Chig’Ambo, Masanbo Chikunga, Loveness Chilndo, Joyce Chilombo, Dimass Chipako, Nelly Chipembele, Kalenga Chipili, Leo Chisanga, Josephine Chishimba, Aliness Chisi, Mary Chulufya, Frankie Cox, Obvious Cube, Astrida Daka, Webster Daka, Benfors ‘Wee Do, Jody Drayer, Alice Dreyer, Justina Fuvalanga, Gabriel Gauchet, Fadi Hus, Gloria Huwiler, Moses Jere, Masiye Jose, Mariam Chansa Kabunada, Chama Kaifa, Innocent Kalakula, Mary Kalembe, Chileshe Kalimamukwento, Alfred Kanomba, Bright Kapelewa, Sombo Kapole, Richard Kayamaba, Goodfellow Kayuni, Gloria Kunda, Grace Kunda, Chilufya Kwenda, Mary Lungu, Dina Lupiya, Mwengele Lwipa, Agatha Lyobe, Odis Mainz, Charles Malambo, Gibson Malenge, Christopher Malundu, James Manaseh, Eunice Mapala, Martin Matakala, Sherard Mayanda, Eneless Mbewe, Joyce Mbomena, Travers Merrill, Oliness Monopoly, John Mubanga, Ritah Mubanga, Dyna Mufuni, Simon Muhango, Njebe Mukobkei, Joe Mulalu, Moona Mulenda, Gertrude Mulenga, Maggie Mulubwa, Joseph Mumba, Magdalena Mumba, Nellie Munamonga, Jane Munthali, Nancy Muilo, Prisca Musaca, Mirram Musaka, Tayna Musaka, Junior Musale, Dennis Musendo, Aem Mushuma, Mate Musialike, Doreen Musondaa, Evans Mutubila, Davy Muyunda, Margaret Z Mwale, Abbreviah Mwape, Dualism Nada, Sokaiya Nasilele, Marriam Nata, Bright Ndopu, John Ng’Ambi, Becky Ngoma, Clinton Ngoma, Josephine Ngoma, Ruther Njobru, Evan Nkhoma, Frank Nyalwa, Azzion Nyrenda, Josephine Penti, Henry BJ Phiri, Lexina Phiri, Stephen Phiri, Victor Phiri, Yoram Phiri, Professor Proud, Fides Sinyangwe, Margaret Spinella, John Tembo, Joseph Tembo, Tobias Tembo, Pulani Topham, Masa Zulu, Selita Zulu and Setrida Zulu. It is produced by Juliette Grandmont and Emily Morgan, it features creative input by Matthew James Kelly (music), David Gallego (cinematography), George Cragg, Yann Dedet and Thibault Hague (editing), Patricia Carreira (casting) and Victoria Gadsden (costumes). \
- I am Not a Witch was the film screened at the opening event of the European Film Festival in South Africa, on June 21. It will be screened again on Tuesday June 26, in Johannesburg and Cape Town; and July 1 in Johannesburg.