Perhaps more beautiful and strange than wholly satisfying, it’s nonetheless easy to see why Rungano Nyoni’s debut film arrives in the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar of Cannes trailing ribbons of new-discovery buzz. A defiantly uncategorizable mix of superstition, satire and social anthropology, it tells the story of a small Zambian girl who is denounced as a witch and exiled to a witch camp, where she is alternately exploited and embraced. Singular as that story might be, what makes “I Am Not a Witch” unique, however, is Nyoni’s abundant, maybe even overabundant directorial confidence. It’s rare and exhilarating that a new filmmaker arrives on the scene so sure of herself and so willing to take bold, counter-intuitive chances.
In the film’s elegant Vivaldi-scored opening, a tourist bus disgorges its passengers, including a large woman who is one of the only white people we’ll see. They file past a makeshift fence behind which sit rows of women wearing white paint on their faces, each tethered by a long narrow strip of white cloth, to a spindle. This is a “witch camp” (such arcane places do exist), and it’s no summertime retreat for maladjusted middle-class kids to learn some Wiccan rituals. The camp is a place of exile and containment for women who have been declared to be witches within their communities. But also, as this opening suggests, they are there for public display; this is a human zoo, and the tourists gawk accordingly.
Suddenly, we’re on a quiet dusty road following a woman carrying a large pail of water on her head. Unexpectedly, because this image of African womanhood is usually imbued with such sure-footed grace, she trips and falls, and the water spills all around. She looks up and sees a small, boyish girl, Shula (the appealingly self-possessed Margaret Mulubwa). And with that, we are in an official’s office where a woman in uniform is listening to the water carrier’s complaint: The child is a witch, she claims.
Shula, incongruously dressed in a ragged T-shirt emblazoned with the word “#bootycall,” is fitted with one of the spindles, which are there to tether the women to the earth and stop them from flying away — and from which they cannot detach themselves for fear of being instantly turned into a goat: The movie is played partly for laughs, partly as social critique and partly as feminist allegory. Shula is tattooed with a symbol that looks like pi on her forehead. And then she is shopped around, using her “powers” to identify thieves and launch a range of presumably magical eggs, by the entrepreneurially opportunist manager of the witch camp, Tembo (John Tembo).
Shula is not a witch, of course, because such things do not exist, but she is a mystery, especially since the director paints her with very little in the way of characterization or understandable motivation. Rather like her treatment by Tembo and by the community that seems to get some catharsis from her denouncement, Shula is a means to an end, a vessel around which Nyoni gathers disparate fragments and impressions.
But the intentions are not always clear: Nyoni herself is a young Zambian-born Welsh woman, who was inspired to tell this story following a research trip to a witch camp in Ghana, and her film is a similar admixture of points of view and perspectives. So while there is a definite critique of the visiting tourists and their prurience, there are also scenes that smack of a tourist’s attitude. Mostly it feels like we’re being asked to empathize with the plight of a little girl being victimized by a cruel society that targets and exploits the vulnerable (or the merely unpopular) in the name of traditions they may or may not actually believe in. But occasionally events feels faintly like cultural condescension, by which we’re meant to laugh or tut-tut at the backwardness of these people with their silly superstitions.
Amid so much that is pointedly unexplained, DP David Gallego’s cinematography remains an organic source of wonder. Best known for his deliciously rich monochrome work on Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” (also a Directors’ Fortnight breakout), here he works in full, if controlled, color and some of the shots he gets, especially exploring the billowy potential of those long white streamers, have an alien, Hou Hsiao-hsien level of considered fascination.
In places where life is hard, and education patchy at best, mere coincidence can seem like a curse, and some of these tribal communities clearly find periodic relief in scapegoating a certain female (it’s always a female) as the source of all their miseries. After all, a universe in which your misfortunes are the result of active malevolence is still an ordered universe, and that’s a far more comfortable notion than chaos.
Nyoni’s approach may itself be a little too chaotic, and a little too oblique to be fully comprehensible (in particular her counterpointing music cues can overreach, and some of the narrative ellipses confuse). But in the investigation of the dichotomies of ancient and modern, familiar and alien, prosaic and mystical, she clearly has a great deal she wants to say, and now, thanks to this invigorating, intriguing and provocative debut, she has a whole career ahead of her in which to say it.