During the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church developed a meticulous judicial process for the identifying, prosecution, and burning of witches. Carl Dreyer’s Day of Wrath, one of the twentieth century’s more terrifying films, depicted this grisly duty. Rungano Nyoni’s feature film debut I Am Not a Witch shows the devolution of this phenomenon from tragedy into farce. The first scene, indeed, shows tourists in the Zambian wild snapping photos of women of all ages held in a pen — a witch camp — as if they were wildebeests, giraffes, or other exotic fish or fowl. Treated with worn condescension by their minders, the women eke out a living. Being a witch in Zambia benefits an economy dependent on white tourism.
Shula, played by newcomer Maggie Mulubwa, is the latest suspect, an eight-year-old girl at the wrong place and time. Why? She happens to be a few feet from a woman who trips and falls carrying a bucket of precious water. Obviously dark magic is responsible. A trial begins, results preordained. Officer Josephine (Nellie Munamonga) looks on with amusement, then mild alarm. The villagers believe the worst of Shula. A hysterical man, gesturing with his arms, insists that Shula cut off one of his arms with an axe. The next step is to involve the government: Josephine calls a man lounging in a bathtub, photographed as a back-to-the-camera parody of Edward G. Robinson’s first scene in Key Largo (1948), who responds dully. At issue: Shula hasn’t confirmed or denied the accusation. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) sees financial possibilities, though.
What follows is a pattern of exploitation and fear mongering, with Shula’s face tattooed with a white stripe; worse, a tether restricts her movement. Shooting scenes from her point of view, Nyoni captures the relentlessness — the absurdity — of the demands. As Banda visits televise talk shows to pimp his prize, villagers visit her and pray for rain. White tourists praise Shula (“What a lovely name!”) in the hopes that, like giving an animal a piece of candy, she’ll smile for photos.
Laconic to the point of muteness, I Am Not a Witch takes a few minutes’ getting used to. Mulubwa’s practically mute performance is like watching an ocean crash against a stone. A couple times she’s shown sewn up in what looks like a potato sack. Nyoni has called her film a satire, and certainly the tethers, or, to be accurate, leashes represent the comic, cruel enlargement characteristic of the approach. “Do you want to be a witch or a goat?” Shula is asked. Those are her options. Nyoni points out that viewers unfamiliar with African customs are apt to do some condescension on their own, i.e. “I’m sure glad we’re not as primitive as those Zambians!” In a putatively advanced country where some state laws require abortion providers to wait twenty-four hours before the procedure (in case these frail creatures change their minds, see) or show them ultrasound images, tethers still exist, and the men at the other end pull back hard. The last indelible frames of I Am Not a Witch show the literal consequences.