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I Am Not a Witch: The cruel humour behind a mix of tradition and money

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Issue 2577
Shula is more than a victim and retains a certain strength
Shula is more than a victim and retains a certain strength

I Am Not a Witch is a highly unusual film that will make you think and wonder.

Made by Zambian-born Rungano Nyoni, it is part satire, part documentary and part fairy tale.

And like many fairy tales, it has elements of violence and darkness.

At its heart this is a film about the oppression of women, and how they are controlled and used.

The basic story is simple. A young girl is blamed for unusual happenings in her village.

She’s denounced as a witch and shipped off to a witch camp.

This camp serves both as a dumping ground for older women who are seen as a burden on society, and as a freak show for tourists.

The women are also used as forced labour. The women are attached to spools of ribbon—“to stop them flying away”, say the authorities.


It is a place that brings together a certain sort of cultural belief and the most venal money-making opportunity.

The young girl, named Shula by her fellow “witches”, is more than a victim. She retains a certain strength and does not follow advice to “do as you are told”.

Spotted by Mr Banda, a corrupt public servant with an eye for a quick buck, she is soon employed for her “special powers”.

She picks criminals from a suspects’ line-up, appears as an exotic oddity on a television show, and seeks to break a drought.

And throughout it all she never gives the slightest indication that she believes she is a witch. She is just trying to survive.

Director Nyoni has said, “What I was interested in was this idea of how people impose rules, however absurd, on other people and how difficult it is to break away from the rules, even if they unspoken ones relating to society or tradition.”

The film doesn’t try to explain why quite large numbers of people in Africa believe in witchcraft.

I was sometimes worried that people watching the film might laugh in a supposedly superior way at the “stupid Africans”.

Belief in witches is a form of scapegoating and a search for meaning often rooted in desperate poverty, fear and insecurity.

Those of us in Europe watch the media and politicians peddle the most irrational myths about, say, refugees.

We should not be surprised that other forms of wild belief can take hold of a society.

There are sections of the film that are hard to understand, and scenes that seem to go on too long.

But it’s a film you should see, not least for the last ten minutes.

This is a combination of desperate sadness, extraordinary images and powerful singing that you will remember for a long time.

I Am Not a Witch is in selected cinemas now


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