BY ANDRES SOLAR
The eminently sharp and fully fascinating Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni works cinematic wonders in her first feature I Am Not A Witch, which is the realization of her curiosity, humor, and vivid visions. However, it is anything but ostentatious. It impresses through an easy-flowing, matter-of-fact montage of intelligent and splendid visuals, through its central allegory, and through characters and dialogue of bracing hilarity.
In real life, some contemporary cultural clusters in Africa believe in witches and witchcraft, and these have been subjects of Nyoni’s studies, particularly in the Gambia. Her film’s conflict emerges with a minor accident during a woman’s daily chores. She sees a child standing alone nearby on the dirt road, and the woman immediately makes up her mind: the little girl must be the cause of the trouble, and she must be a witch!
Through the small town’s avid superstitiousness, the child’s (the main character’s) reputation as a witch grows. The great sociological observations in the film center on how she copes with private business interests and public government entities trying to capitalize on her new persona.
This artwork feels timely, in that it’s an empathetic experience. The young girl’s trials provide a baseline of innocence which contrasts with crazy (almost literally) and corrupt adult society. The result is an unusual emotional depth. Her curiosity, rebelliousness, sadness, and wonder draw you into her world.
The satire here doesn’t dwell in the realm of dream-like magick surrealism, as in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Dance Of Reality (superb, 2013), but rather in an absurdist realism that’s just as effective. Nyoni’s symbology is big and bold, consistent but intermittent. Her depictions of society’s foibles, perfectly and purposefully exaggerated, are nevertheless grounded in the droughted dust or green grasses of the agricultural villages. The writer-director possesses a refreshing vigor, and she lampoons with satisfying gusto.
Yet, guided by a most sensitive, humanistic heart, Rungano Nyoni gently stirs a bold brew that includes ancient ingredients of fine storytelling—a serious moral, supernaturalism, and absurdist comedy—and serves intoxicating chalices of brand new, searing, scalding satire. Her Zambian-universal, feminist fairy tale is stunningly magnificent and it’s one for the ages.
Thinking about how thoroughly unpredictable this movie is, I remember (oddly enough) the words of the fabulously talented, late writer-director Doris Wishman (Hideout In The Sun, 1960). I can almost hear her raspy voice and thick New York accent: “It’s very difficult to be original.” She knew of what she spoke, and she would have delighted in Nyoni’s wildly original work.
I Am Not A Witch is such a rich, rewarding film for the viewer, and there’s so much to explore, that a one-line summary really doesn’t do justice. Just know that it’s a heck of a lot of fun, even as it calls for inspection of, and introspection on, deep-seeded, vexing (not hexing) societal afflictions.
5 of 5 stars
In English & Nyanja with English subtitles
Now playing at the Miami Beach Cinematheque.