Rungano Nyoni (2017)
In an interview in Sight & Sound (November 2017), the writer-director Rungano Nyoni expresses her great admiration for Michael Haneke: it’s apt that white ribbons are such an important image in Nyoni’s first feature I Am Not a Witch. In Haneke’s film, set in the early twentieth century, the children of a Lutheran pastor are made to wear a white ribbon to remind them of their duty to be pure of heart. Nyoni’s debut, set in present-day Zambia, also features a white-beribboned child but the material is a tie that binds in a more literal sense. In the opening scene, a group of tourists visits a ‘witch farm’, where they observe a huddle of middle-aged and elderly women, their faces painted white, their bodies attached by white ribbons to a huge, single spool. A guide explains that, if not restrained in this way, the women – they are witches after all – might fly away. I Am Not a Witch soon becomes the story of eight-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who is sent to join this company.
Nyoni loses no time in suggesting the arbitrary nature of witchcraft accusations. Shula is in the wrong place at the wrong time. In a largely deserted rural landscape, a woman carrying a pitcher of water trips, falls and spills her cargo. Shula is standing nearby. The woman decides that the girl put the evil eye on her. The police officer (Nellie Munamonga) who investigates the incident is properly sceptical but Shula’s refusal either to confirm or deny the accusation poses a problem. A white ribbon is attached to her clothing and she is given a choice: either cut the ribbon and risk being transformed into a goat or leave the ribbon intact and join the witch farm. She opts for the latter. She is (on the evidence of the film but see last paragraph below) an exceptionally young witch and a politician singles her out for special treatment. Mr Banda (Henry B J Phiri), Minister for Tourism and Traditional Beliefs, starts to exploit Shula’s potential for saving government money and boosting revenue. He uses her alleged powers to settle civil cases in court. He takes her onto a primetime television chat show – though it’s he who does all the talking there.
The ‘Smooth Talk’ show sequence is one of the film’s several juxtapositions of ancient and modern, indigenous tradition and Western influences, in Zambian culture. The members of the TV studio audience that has just enjoyed a rap performance look blankly or curiously at Shula when she and Banda come on stage. The ‘coven’, although segregated from their families, can still have occasional contact with them and a witch’s daughter brings to the farm a supply of wigs, which the witches try on. The hairpieces are named for the celebrities who inspired them – the daughter refers to them the Beyoncé or the Rihanna or the Kim Kardashian. (The daughter speaks in an African dialect. The English subtitles suggest, by misspelling these famous names, her idiosyncratic pronunciation of them.) Shula spends time in Banda’s swanky home. His wife Charity (Nancy Murilo), who lives and dresses in high style, explains that she herself once faced accusations of being a witch. She emphasises to Shula the importance of becoming ‘respectable’ and shows off the Bandas’ chandeliers but the décor also includes a witch spool (like a giant cotton reel) and Charity is still expected to put a white ribbon on if she leaves the house. The choice of European classical music on the soundtrack – a very deliberate choice, according to the S&S interview – supplies another cultural dichotomy. Although this music seemed to me nothing more than strikingly incongruous, it may well be personally meaningful to Rungano Nyoni, born in Zambia and raised in Wales. (She moved from Lusaka to live in Cardiff at the age of eight – Shula’s age.)
The comedy – even though it’s troubling comedy – in these illustrations of culture clash helps lighten the film’s mood. So does Banda, and with a similar caveat. He is easily made to look foolish: by the increasingly resistant and resourceful Shula; through his craven attitude in a meeting with tribal royalty; in his blustering condemnation of a phone-in caller to ‘Smooth Talk’, whose tricky question Banda dismisses as an abuse of freedom of speech. He’s a vain buffoon but an influential one. Nyoni also gets sarcastic humour out of tourist attitudes to Zambia’s witch ‘industry’– especially a cooing, sentimental white woman who tries to ‘cheer up’ Shula by taking her photograph. I Am Not a Witch is lifted too by the sheer, controlled confidence of the filmmaking. Those white ribbons are versatile in their texture and movement – lovely as they quiver in the wind, frightening as they’re pulled tight to thwart an attempted escape and the fugitive witch is dragged along the ground. David Gallego’s cinematography gives the dusty, parched rural terrain an imposing severity. The closing scene – in which the witches change from their usual blue-grey garb into red robes, to conduct a funeral service – has great visual impact.
Since the witches are bidding farewell to Shula, this finale leaves no room for doubt that Rungano Nyoni’s story, in spite of its various amusements, is a fundamentally unhappy one. On what appears to be the night before her death, Shula says that she regrets that, when she had the choice, she didn’t opt to cut the white ribbon – even if this had meant turning into a goat. A goat, says Shula, can move about freely – though her older companions remind her it can be eaten too. Although the style of the film is often realistic, there are points in the narrative where Nyoni eschews realism for the sake of what she judges a more important symbolism. It isn’t made clear, for example, why Shula doesn’t protest, at the outset, that ‘I am not a witch’; but her reticence effectively conveys the message that women, perhaps especially girls, accused of witchcraft in the society Nyoni is describing don’t have a voice in fighting this cultural tyranny. The director doesn’t explain either the circumstances of the young girl’s death but it makes symbolic sense to the extent that Shula is doomed (though the lack of explanation was still, to this viewer, frustrating). Maggie Mulubwa completely satisfies what Nyoni surely wanted from the child playing Shula: she’s engagingly individual yet, partly because she has so little say, eloquently representative.
That last word reminds me that I doubt I’d have realised the setting was specifically Zambia, rather than ‘a sub-Saharan African country’, if I hadn’t read about the film beforehand. The persistence of belief in witchcraft is strong across the sub-continent and I’m ignorant of the variations between countries in how this manifests itself. As she recently made clear to the Guardian, Rungano Nyoni set out to excoriate not belief in witchcraft as such but its social consequences: ‘It’s not the belief that I’m against, or that I question, because spooky things happen all the time in Zambia. It’s that the witch accusations, are always aimed at older women or children. This is the bit I find absurd.’ Nyoni’s agnosticism enriches the film’s final sequence, in which rain suddenly starts to fall over the gathering of witches in mourning. The downpour is long-needed: Shula had been put under pressure to bring it about – in one scene, she was made to do a rain dance. Is the opening of the heavens at her death a sarcastic irony or one of Nyoni’s ‘spooky things’ happening? Either way, it makes for a beautiful closing image.
9 November 2017