A strange image appears throughout Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni’s beautiful and haunting film I Am Not a Witch, and I can’t get it out of my head. A dozen or so elderly women wearing ragged dark blue overalls and scarves over their hair, sit together, expressionless, on the bed of an orange 18-wheeler truck. Each woman has a harness attached at her shoulder blades connecting her to a spool of ribbon. The spools are affixed to poles that jut out all along the bed of the truck. When the truck is parked, the women fan out across the landscape, their ribbons crisscrossing the horizon and flapping in the wind. As each woman walks further away from the base, her spool turns to unfurl the ribbon. To bring her back to the base, a supervisor need only turn the spool in the opposite direction to wind her in. What would happen if the women cut their ribbons? Why don’t they? After all, it is only ribbon and not chain. What is really keeping them tethered?
This is the unstated question that runs throughout I Am Not a Witch. The premise of the film is this: villagers in a town in rural Zambia accuse a mysterious girl, played by Maggie Mulubwa, of witchcraft. A government official, Mr. Banda, played by Henry BJ Phiri, is called to the scene and takes the girl to a witch camp, populated by the elderly witches in blue overalls, each tethered to a spool of ribbon. Mr. Banda and his lackeys attach her to the end of a ribbon and send her alone to a hut for the night with a pair of scissors and these instructions: leave the ribbon intact and join the witch camp or cut the ribbon and immediately turn into a goat. She leaves the ribbon intact, and the remainder of the film explores that choice.
The girl does not say much. It is through encounters with others that her character is both developed and restrained. The senior witches name her “Shula,” which means “abandoned.” They assure her that she has it easy compared to the olden days: the ribbons are so much longer now; back in the olden days, you could barely turn around, the ribbons were so short. Mr. Banda sees in Shula an opportunity for power and profit. He takes her around on official government errands, exploiting her powers to bolster his authority, and he markets Shula brand eggs on national television. Banda’s stylish wife Charity (Nancy Murilo) takes pity on Shula and welcomes her into her lavish home, and, pointing to her own wedding ring, tells her there is only one way out of witchhood: respectability. Meanwhile, a drought ravages the region and the queen, played by Pulani Topham, insists that the future of the community is in Shula’s hands: the girl must make rain. Idiotic tourists come to the witch camp to ogle Shula, speaking to her in saccharine tones before snapping selfies with her.
Within Nyoni’s macabre premise, we recognize traces of our own world. We are told by corporations, NGOs, politicians and culture-makers what girls are. Girls are an investment. Girls are the future. Girls are consumers. Girl power! Girls are dangerous—they can disrupt the social order and so must be taught to behave. Girls are vulnerable, and only you can save them. Their fate, we are told, is the fate of the world. But what is it like to be this figure upon which so much depends?
Nyoni—who both directed and wrote the screenplay for I Am Not a Witch—does not use the Shula character to ventriloquize our fantasies or clichés about girlhood: Shula is not cuddly, or heroic, or virtuous, or kick-ass. She is robustly and intricately human. Maggie Mulubwa, the young actress who plays Shula, explores the emotional contours of her predicament with great nuance. Tears streak her cheeks when she is lonely and overwhelmed by the demands placed on her. She narrows her eyes and sets her jaw when vindictive, and as she becomes aware of her limited power, she sometimes uses it to harm others. At other times, she gazes into the distance, resigned and depressed. Her face and body relax into an expression of pure joy on the few occasions when she is free to just play with other children.
This film is simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious. Much of the credit for the film’s humor is due to Henry BJ Phiri in the role of Mr. Banda. We first encounter his character from behind as he reclines in a bubble-filled bathtub, his flesh virtually flowing over the sides of the tub, slippery like a dolphin while his wife labors to scrub and clean his body. We watch him scramble on hands and knees as he grovels before the queen, and we watch him pathetically use his power to bully the weak.
There is comedy throughout the film. A somber trial in which Shula must use her witchly powers to identify a thief from a lineup of suspects is interrupted repeatedly by the sound of a funky, zippy version of “Old MacDonald” emanating from the pocket of the accuser: an elderly man dressed in a suit and thick glasses who cannot figure out how to silence his phone. In another scene, the senior witches primp and pucker in the mirror while they try on garish red and blue and pink and blond wigs, and they get sloppy-drunk on gin at nighttime.
Is Shula a witch? Maybe she’s just a child, an earnest member of the public suggests when calling into a television talk show where Shula is on display in full witchy regalia, complete with feathers and face paint. The awkward silence that ensues leaves us to ponder what that would mean, what adjustments would have to be made, and whose expectations released? The question is not so much whether or not witches are real, but rather what everybody would have to give up if the ribbons were cut.