Rungano Nyoni’s first feature is one hell of a début. I Am Not a Witch, the story of an eight year-old girl accused of witchcraft, is a sharply-drawn social satire defined by clear yet complicated politics and impeccable composition.
After protagonist, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), is charged with being a witch, Shula is restrained to an encampment of witches – mostly older women – oddly seconded to serve the government and restrained by ribbons lest they be turned into a goat. It’s a fantastical premise that’s at once surreal (favourably recurring Buñuel) and an unmistakable metaphor for the effects of the patriarchy.
I Am Not a Witch’s surrealistic simplicity ensures that the film immediately attracts attention; unfortunately, it runs out of steam as it powers through to its tragic conclusion. While Nyoni builds upon and interrogates the politics of her premise, the largely mute Shula isn’t an engaging protagonist. The local government official, Mr Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) is a compelling comedic character, but he’s insufficient to support character-based foundation upon which to build social satire.
I Am Not a Witch is not quite an excellent film. But for a début, it’s an incredible achievement; I’m looking forward to whatever Nyoni does next.