‘Who would you rather be: a witch or a goat?’ – not sure that many people get asked this question simply because I’m not sure if there’d be anyone who wants to be either of those things. Herein lies the paradox of Rungano Nyoni’s first full-length feature: she portrays a piece of her native Zambian culture where women, as bizarre as it might sound to us, European millenials, are subjected to be either one of the other – against their will and without any chance for absolution.
You can see why Nyoni has positioned such question as central to the development of her story about a woman’s plight. It is interesting how this witch/goat notion is also easily applied to the position of women in our society. Women are, universally, made into witches and goats because if you think about their broader metaphorical connotations, a witch is someone who has too much power which is then used against her as people will always be scared of the supernatural. If you are a goat, you are just a submissive creature, made subordinate by your host. Strong women are looked down on or locked up within the restrains of domesticity and obedience. Sounds familiar?
According to Zambian-Welsh Rungano Nyoni herself, this is exactly what angered her when she travelled around witch camps in Africa. For a country like Zambia, that is considered to exist under a matriarchal order, women, especially the ‘power’ women with a property under their name, are most often accused if witchcraft and exiled.
Such positions as witch doctors and local chefs, who are integral in making the decisions about women’s destinies, are held by men, which instantly denounces this idea of the matriarchal structure. These women have no say in their defence and they have to suffer for the rest of their lives, held almost as hostages by their hosts – men.
A fairytale-like (graced by the breathtaking shots of ‘Embrace of the Serpent’ DOP David Gallego) I AM NOT A WITCH is Rungano Nyoni’s way of dealing with her anger about the fake matriarchy as she takes a stand on one of the most unorthodox phenomenons in modern society. But don’t expect sorrowful undertones or a gloomy atmosphere – I AM NOT A WITCH, believe it or not, is actually also inexplicably funny.
This tragedy-cum-satire is shown through the eyes of nine-year old Shula, who is put on trial for alleged misbehaviour against the local residents and pronounced as a witch. After choosing to be a witch over becoming a goat, Shula joins a camp of other sentenced women and just like them, her body is bound in ribbons that are tied to a giant reel (one of the many extraordinary elements of Nyoni’s mise-en-scène).
And all of a sudden, Shula is an innocent kid no more – the local governor makes her into a village mascot, convinced that she can save it from the prolonged drought. Shula becomes revered by everyone – the witch master even brings her to the local chat show to showcase her powers.
Shula accepts her destiny with the most dispassionate silence. Throughout the film you are left to wonder what is going on in this little girl’s head; why has she so easily reconciled with such unfair judgement? Yet there is deep melancholy that hides behind her intelligent eyes. At the end of the chat show, the host suggesys to the local chief that maybe she does not want all of this, maybe all she wants to do is to be an ordinary child? Shula’s character is so undeniably tragic, stripped of normal childhood, she is made into a object of someone’s irrational imagination, and used for purposes completely alien and unfathomable to her.
It was definitely a wise choice from Rungano Nyoni to imbed a good portion of comic relief as it’s so much easier to digest such a heartbreaking story as this. And we desperately need more directors like her. Africa is such an unexplored territory for us as Western viewers because have you ever asked yourself: when was the last time you saw a film about Africa that had such strong social implications, and that made you laugh, cry and gasp at its visual scopes? I AM NOT A WITCH is so witty, fresh and original, and proves that stories such as these must be told more.