Lingering superstition collides with the ills of modernity in this surprising and complex comedy drama from Zambia. The culture portrayed through searing black comedy in I Am Not a Witch is profoundly different from ours, but it is definitely familiar enough for its most damning moments to touch a nerve.
The nearly silent protagonist of the film is Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), seemingly an orphan who is dragged to the police station when she bears witness to a woman in her village falling down. Condemned by her entire village as a witch, the helpless young girl is sent to live in a colony of similarly accused women where she is the youngest by a margin of around sixty years. Lost and confused, but drawn to the sisterhood of the old woman she is forced to live among, Shula finds herself beset by forces much bigger than her... and they definitely aren't magical in nature.
Tied down with white ribbons supposedly to stop them from flying away and committing awful deeds, the "witches" are held completely to the whims of the government, represented by the bumbling Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) and the matriarchal ruler that it seeks to appease. Shula finds that her "gifts" are useful for making her a one-woman jury at criminal trials, or bringing rain to the drought stricken region. The film treads lightly, gleefully skirting the line between miracle and coincidence in enrapturing ways.
When a tourist volunteers to take a selfie with a brooding Shula and promises to send said selfie to the girl, it is hilarious, but it's also a queasy moment of realisation. The exploitation of Shula and her clan of would-be witches is framed in a way that is slightly absurd, but not so absurd that it doesn't cut hard and fast like the deepest, darkest comedies tend to. It's almost hard to tell how much of the film is real, and how much is hyperbole or metaphor.
I Am Not a Witch is effortlessly funny, but it's also beautiful and deeply melancholy. The fluttering ribbons that tie the women down are a powerful symbol throughout the film from their first appearance, and the film's final frames are so undeniably poetic that it's hard to keep the tears from coming.
Any film from the continent of Africa is a rare treat, and this one is no exception. Stories of marginalised people, and in particular marginalised women, have never been timelier, but I Am Not a Witch feels ageless. Constructed artfully and deployed delicately, it makes a lasting and thought-provoking impression.
An unfinished version of I Am Not a Witch screened as part of the 2017 Sydney Film Festival.