Daniel Nelson

I Am Not A Witch

I Am Not A Witch

Image by I Am Not A Witch

Ok, born in Zambia, brought up in Wales is a rare slot, but her first feature, I Am Not A Witch, is outstanding by any standard.

It tells the story of a near-mute eight-year-old girl, Shula, who is taken as a witch – essentially for standing near a woman who trips and drops her bucket while returning from the well – and is confined to a witch camp and then taken over by an money-making civil servant who revels in the authority that status and money bring.

These early scenes are a delight. They are witty and absurd, with glorious caricatures of a policewoman in a rural outpost, a man enjoying his moment in the spotlight as he recounts his witch dream to a crowd of onlookers, a motley group of tourists. The satire skewers its targets but is not cruel.

There's a visually intoxicating moment when the witches' flat-bed truck hoves into view: the women sit docilely along the length of the vehicle, in front of the giant reels of white ribbon to which they are tethered, in an eerie echo of the captive women in The Handmaid's Tale. The ribbons, fixed to their backs, prevent them flying away.

It's evident that they are not witches. They are simply older women whose value to the community has expired for one reason or another and who can now be put to work by farmers needing slave labour.

Yes, the message about the subservience of women is open and clear, but the tethering metaphor is so powerfully pictorial that it doesn't feel didactic and sometimes packs a punch, as when Shula finally and smilingly gets to school but is suddenly reined back in, helplessly, head first, on her back.

The characters aren't deep: it's a fable, after all, and the ending is a muddle. But it's intelligent, quirky, funny, and original. A real find.

* I Am Not A Witch is showing at the London Film Festival on 12, 14 and 15 October, and will be screened at ICA, The Mall, SW1 on 20-26 October.

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