I Am Not a Witch (3 stars)

I Am Not a Witch

Young Margaret Mulubwa is a compelling presence in Rungano Nyoni's striking but somewhat cryptic debut

Zambian-born, Welsh-raised Rungano Nyoni's eyecatching directorial debut I Am Not a Witch blends deadpan social satire with a highly unusual portrait of a young girl confronted by the eccentricity and injustice of the adult world. Set in and around Zambia's capital city of Lusaka, it boasts striking images and bright ideas but the storytelling is a little too cryptic for its own good.

Nine-year-old Shula (Margaret Mulubwa) stands accused of witchcraft. A woman claims that Shula was responsible for her dropping a container of water. Eyewitness accounts embellish the accusations, with one man claiming that Shula hit him with an axe and his arm fell off. 'So what did you do after your arm fell off?' asks an investigator. When an intimidated Shula refuses to confirm or deny that she is a witch, she is taken to a witch camp and bound with a white ribbon that will stop her taking flight. She is given a choice – if she cuts the ribbon she will become a goat, if she keeps the ribbon she must remain in the camp as a witch.

The film begins at a witch camp, where all the woman are bound with spools of ribbon and whilst this is seemingly an age-old response to superstition, it also serves as a freak show for the tourists. Traditional beliefs are thus placed at the service of a modern desire to generate income.

I Am Not a Witch may ridicule the cynicism of Shula's elders but, as she finds a place among her fellow 'witches', it also explores the wider issue of how women's voices are silenced and subjugated. Mulubwa's sullen, inscrutable Shula is a compelling presence at the heart of the story, but more clarity in explaining her ultimate fate might have made the film even more accessible.

Limited release from Fri 20 Oct.

I Am Not A Witch

  • 3 stars
  • 2017
  • UK
  • 1h 30min
  • 12A
  • Directed by: Rungano Nyoni
  • Cast: Margaret Mulubwa, Gloria Huwiler, Ritah Mubanga, Dyna Mufuni
  • UK release: 20 October 2017

Nine-year-old Shula (Mulubwa) is accused of being a witch, and the authorities in Lusaka place her in a witch camp. Mulubwa is a compelling presence as the sullen, inscrutable Shula, but more clarity in explaining what ultimately happens to her might have made it more accessible.