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A winningly original and stylistically fresh debut feature from the young Zambia-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni, I Am Not a Witch is one of the more buzzy premieres screening in the Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes. A fable-like story about a young African girl banished from her village for alleged witchcraft, it blends deadpan humor with light surrealism, vivid visuals and left-field musical choices.
Beyond the festival and art house bubble, the disjointed narrative and thinly drawn characters will likely limit commercial prospects for this Zambia-shot U.K.-France co-production. But I Am Not a Witch is still a hugely charming debut. With smart marketing, Nyoni’s bold fusion of folklore, social comment, magical realism and her own family heritage could even translate into breakout word-of-mouth success akin to the tonally similar Beasts of the Southern Wild.
Superstition around witchcraft is still rife in parts of Africa, especially in more rural regions, where eccentric behavior can lead to public vilification, exile and threats of violence. Often there are more cynical motives behind these denunciations, which offer families a convenient way to rid themselves of elderly relatives who have become a financial burden. The vast majority are women, and some end up in dedicated “witch camps.” In researching her film, Nyoni spent more than a month is one such camp, in the West African state of Ghana.
Leading a cast of non-professional actors, 9-year-old screen novice Maggie Mulubwa radiates a quietly haunted intensity as Shula, an orphan village girl who is denounced as a witch after a minor misunderstanding by an overanxious neighbor. When the shy, semi-mute Shula proves unable or unwilling to defend herself at a comically amateurish police interrogation, she is placed in the care of a self-serving government official (Henry B.J. Phiri).
Shula is exiled to a rural internment camp where mostly elderly women branded as witches are commercially exploited for their labor, their alleged magical powers and their voyeuristic appeal as exotic objects of fascination for European tourists. Many such camps exist in real life, but Nyoni adds some fanciful invention of her own, including the inspired device of the alleged witches being permanently anchored to the ground on long white ribbons attached to giant spools that prevent them from flying away.
Nyoni has claimed her mission statement was to avoid preachy realism and concentrate instead on this female-centric universe. There is an implied feminist critique of ingrained misogyny behind I Am Not a Witch, and a droll TV talk-show scene shades into heavy-handed satire, but this is emphatically not some earnest Eurocentric sermon about Africa and its discontents.
The director’s elliptical, non-naturalistic, almost Brechtian approach is both a strength and weakness here. On the positive side, it removes any sense of worthy moralizing, but it also makes the episodic narrative incoherent in places. A final tragic plot twist is poorly explained and abruptly presented, robbing the story of the cumulative emotional force it might have amassed in a more conventionally structured drama. This may be Nyoni’s intention, but such arty detachment will alienate some of the film’s potential audience.
Framed with a pleasing eye for symmetrical composition by David Gallego, who also shot Ciro Guerra’s 2015 Oscar nominee Embrace of the Serpent in ravishing monochrome, I Am Not a Witch is heavily stylized in places, with sparing use of freeze-frame shots and a lightly desaturated color palette. Having established the conceit of witches being tethered to the ground with ribbons, Nyoni makes great use of these visually striking streamers, weaving them into tableaux that resemble giant art installations. Also worthy of mention are the arresting costume designs by Holly Rebecca, a sometime stylist for singer Solange Knowles.
Nyoni counterpoints the long, deep, sultry silences of the Zambian bush with bright splashes of music, including lusty choral chants, vivid bursts of Vivaldi, incongruous snatches of Europop and jazzy percussive flourishes that blur the line between score and sound design. A left-field gem in a mostly underwhelming Cannes program, I Am Not a Witch feels like the birth of a significant new screen voice.
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