Among the very few sentences the accused “witch” uttered, “I am not a witch” is not one of them. This stylish and deeply disturbing debut by Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni turned out to be more profound than I expected.
The story unfolds as a 7-year-old girl is accused of being a witch by a village woman, who, after falling on her feet, finds the girl staring at her. The girl, named Shula, is given a choice: to be a witch or a goat. She chooses the former. She is transported to a “witch camp” governed by a male “witch doctor”, which also consists mainly of elderly women.
A sort of magical element surrounds the place: every woman has a long white ribbon tied to their back, which is in turn attached to a track which transports them between different work places.
Throughout the film her powers are used from picking up a guilty suspect to bringing rain to a farm, and all the while, throughout these exploitations, Shula remains timid and silent. She is forced to work hard labor underneath the strict supervision of men, eventually accepting this absurd fate, and subsequently turning a blind eye to camera-buzzing tourists.
The constrained aura of Maggie Mulubwa – a newcomer to the world of film – is brilliant. It is worth considering however whether this fear was natural, since the actress was told by her local villager that the film crew were going to eat her.
The true misery lies in the sheer helplessness of Shula’s situation. Would young Shula have taken the risk of becoming a goat to free herself from the manipulation? Or indeed would her choices make any difference to her treatment?
With a metaphor that seems so universal to our world, this is something worth pondering over.