Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) is only 8 years old when she is accused of witchcraft. Without any family to stand up for her, it doesn’t take long for her to be found guilty. She is sent to a camp where witches are held as laborers and as tourist attractions. But even as the other witches show her the ropes, local politician Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) sees potential in a child witch and finds ways to use her outside of the camp as well.
I Am Not a Witch draws a striking pucture of the way (the accusation of) witchcraft is used to control women in an almost documentarian fashion. With a great performance by Mulubwa, it is a fascinating glimpse into a subculture that intrigues.
Almost 20 years ago, I spent about a year in Kinshasa, and it was the first time I encountered the phenomenon of witchcraft directly. I was too young at the time to look beyond the fact that some of the street children I worked with and a guy I met in the neighborhood were apparently considered witches – for me, it was simply a way to label the unwanted. While that may still be true, there is more to it than that, and I’m Not a Witch, albeit Zambian and not Congolese, gave me a chance to make up for that a little.
I never encountered any witch camps myself, but Nyoni did her research and spent some time in one herself prior to make the film. Her matter of fact approach may be explained in part to that experience, even if she does take some liberties in her portrayal of the witch camp in the film (from what I gather, the ribbons that supposedly keep the witches from flying, are fictional. The forced labor and the touristic elements are not, apparently). The ribbons and the resulting visuals especially invoke such a fantastic feeling in the middle of the realism that you can almost imagine that magic actually does exist in this world.
With Shula, the film has chosen an apparently mysterious character as its protagonist that isn’t quite as mysterious when you think about her as an exploited and abused, traumatized child. She doesn’t want to say anything? She participates in the displays of witchcraft that Mr Banda drags her to? She doesn’t ever deny that she’s a witch? And yet, even though her decisions do make a lot of sense, Mulubwa has such an old presence, you can’t help but feel that there may still be something going on with Shula that you aren’t seeing straight away.
It’s a really fascinating film. There were moments here and there where I found my attention wander, where the film didn’t quite captivate me. Nevertheless, I found the film and the perspective it offers really interesting and engaging.
Summarizing: definitely worth seeing.