All it takes is a silent stare from the child to startle the woman into tripping and dropping the water bucket balanced on her head.
And all it takes is an accusation from that woman to the local magistrate to put the orphan they name “Shula” (“Uprooted,” we are told.) on trial.
“She was just STANDING there! This child is a WITCH!”
Officer Josephine (Nellie Munamonga) may smirk. She makes a show of hearing out assorted “witnesses” that come forward. She even listens to the guy who tells the story of how Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) hacked him with an axe, only to admit that was in a dream (the arm she lopped off is miraculously still attached), rolling her eyes.
It’s just that the whole village seems to think the charges are true.
In “I Am Not a Witch,” the debut feature of Zambian-native/Welsh-raised filmmaker Rungano Nyoni, Officer Josephine does what bureaucrats the world over do when confronted with an official dilemma. She kicks it upstairs, where local appointed fat cat Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri) grabs it, and little Shula, and runs with it.
After, of course, “testing her.” He brings in a witch doctor to dance over her, kill a chicken and use its point of death to interpret whether Shula is “guilty” as charged.
As witchcraft is taken seriously by people rural and urban here, Banda at least wants to make a show of impartiality. And he wants to get his money’s worth out of the witch doctor, who is dancing himself exhausted to progressive jazz.
“Are you tired? Keep going!”
That’s the tone Nyoni seems most comfortable with, sort of a wry, patronizing poke at superstition with a female exploitation/oppression subtext.
Shula won’t speak up in her defense. When the witch doctor gives up, she’s locked in a shack and told to choose, either live as a witch or turn into a goat.
At least she takes her time with the decision. Because the witch’s life, which we sampled in an opening scene tour bus stop at the camp, is not bed of roses. They must wear long ribbons which “keep them from flying away,” and travel on a huge flatbed truck where the ribbons are rolled up, like cloth firehoses, on reels — restricting their movement.
Mr. Banda is the protector/exploiter of a local tourist attraction, the Witches’ Camp. They’re not just for the tourists. The many women, mostly old, are hired out to do day labor in the fields or rock quarry.
And they’re hired-out for traditional witchcraft, too. As there’s a drought, the littlest witch is a handy asset — rented to give a “Rain coming soon” reading to a local white landowner, showing up on the regional “Smooth Talk” chat show.
“Isn’t she just a child?” the host wonders.
Yes, she is.
“I Am Not a Witch” isn’t a line that we ever hear in the subtitled English patois of the people here. Shula lets on that she is, indeed, just a little girl. Her fellow witches take to her, though, and give her the forehead tattoo-marks that label her.
Yes, they buy outrageous wigs to cover their own tattoos, not that villagers or even city slickers are fooled by this.
Nyoni’s mostly amateur cast only have to be interesting and convincing enough to carry a scene or two as the movie progresses. More troubling for the film is its meandering narrative and increasingly downbeat tone.
It practically sprints out of the gate. But the story and energy flag at about the time Shula and Banda do the chat show. Everything after that is deflated, relying on a script that feels unfinished, ill-conceived and vaporous.
Movies from Zambia, especially one with a Welsh connection, are an exotic and rare thing. But while there’s novelty and promise to Nyoni’s little-girl-trapped tale, it tumbles into incoherence too early to merit endorsement.
MPAA Rating: unrated
Cast: Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B.J. Phiri, Nellie Munamonga, Innocent Kalakula
Credits: Written and directed by Rungano Nyoni. A Film Movement release.
Running time: 1:33