The Beguiling ‘I Am Not a Witch’ is a Wickedly Smart Satire about Modern Africa

Possibly the year’s most audacious film debut, “I Am Not a Witch” has won numerous awards, including Britain’s BAFTA for best first feature, and to see it is to understand why.

Written and directed by Zambian-born, Wales-raised Rungano Nyoni, this smart and savage satire is impressive for the way it joins a dramatically involving story with a Swiftian tale of human society in general and Africa culture and customs in particular.

The mythical country that “Witch” is set in is a chaotic, surreal place where modernity and superstition uneasily coexist, where rural farmers have cellphones that bogglingly feature “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” for a ringtone.

It is also a world, as in 2005’s excellent “War Witch,” where everyone accepts the notion that witches exist and are to be feared. Not only feared but also used, exploited and considered to be civil servants.

Nyoni, with several award-winning shorts to her credit, has had a clear vision for her work here and the ability to get strong performances from her nonprofessional cast, especially 9-year-old star Maggie Mulubwa.

Nyoni, working in English and the local language of Nyanja, has an unforced way of dealing with themes like exploitation, oppression and superstition, showing how easy it can be for nonsense to pass itself off as sense.

“Witch” starts with an African tourist bus headed not for wildlife but for an enclosure where middle-aged women, white paint and resigned looks on their faces, sit tethered to the ground by pristine white ribbons.

These women, the guide tells the impressed visitors, are genuine witches. If not for that grounding ribbon, “they can fly to the U.K., anywhere” and do their worst. “That’s why they usually fly, to go and kill.”

Next we visit a nearby village where a young child with an unnerving, unblinking stare (a convincing Mulubwa) has destabilized the citizenry just by showing up.

They take her to the local police station and tell a perplexed Officer Jennifer (Nellie Munamonga) of their fears that she is a witch, with one man even recalling a dream as if it were physical evidence,

Unsure what to do, the officer calls Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phir). Though he’s occupied being bathed by attentive wife Charity (Nancy Murilo), Banda snaps to attention when he hears about “a new witch in town.” And no wonder.

As the minister of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, Banda is the central figure in what turns out to be a complex web of belief, mutual dependency and self-interest. On the government’s side, witches turn out to be a growth industry. Tethered by those long white ribbons, so enormous they are rolled up on massive spools, witches can be transported to fields to do hard labor or get hired out to cast spells that theoretically bring rain to a parched land.

As for the women, who may or may not believe they are witches, there is the begrudging recognition that this is a living. “We’re soldiers for the government,” they chant in unison, “and we’re used to it.”

Banda introduces the young girl into what turns out to be a supportive sisterhood of venerable women who give the silent newcomer the name of Shula and try to protect her as best they can from a grasping world. Banda, as it turns out, has big plans for Shula, including using her as an instrument of justice to pick out which of a large group of suspects is an actual thief.

For though you might think the population would not be easily won over, people seem to believe in these women’s powers, so much so that lives can be traumatized and danger quite real. Nyoni’s birthplace of Zambia actually had the institution of witch camps, and she visited one in Ghana that is over 200 years old. But the director is clear that her film is “a fairy tale, it isn’t meant to portray reality in any way.”

Similarly, “I Am Not a Witch” is too savvy to take a firm position either way as to whether these women have any actual powers. It’s all in the eye of the beholder, which seems the way it should be.

(Article written by Kenneth Turan)