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Welsh/Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni’s debut I Am Not a Witch makes inspired use of nonprofessionals actors she found on the streets to craft a striking fairy-tale-cum-satire about witchcraft in rural Zambian society. Taking aim too at government corruption and misogyny, it brings to mind both Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Arthur Miller’s The Crucible.

A young, anonymous girl is accused of being a witch by a mob of villagers and is banished to a witch camp. Under the watchful gaze of a predatory government official, she and the elderly ladies there are readily exploited for their labour, their supposed magical powers, but also for their tourist dollar. The film has a bleak sense of humour that is particularly effective in the court scenes where the nine-year-old ‘witch’ (newcomer Maggie Mulubwa, with a sad, haunted stare) has to identify the guilty party.

Witch camps do actually exist, Nyoni explained in the Q&A afterwards (she spent a month researching one in Ghana). But it’s unlikely they resemble the surreal metaphorical dystopias that she boldly conjures, where the witches are shackled by long ribbons mounted on giant reels to ensure they can’t escape. The spectacle of their white ribbons against the dusty, muted landscape is one of the film’s chilling visual punches. There are some bombastic aural stylistic choices too, with Vivaldi and Estelle rubbing shoulders on the surprising soundtrack. While the satire occasionally feels too blunt, overall the film offers a rush of originality, energy and ambition so often lacking at Cannes.

Review by Isabel Stevens, Sight and Sound

19th October 2018

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