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In modern-day Zambia, a young girl is accused of witchcraft. Her guilt is determined by a witch doctor’s ritual beheading of a chicken. She becomes the only child sentenced to life as part of a chain-gang of witch laborers in I Am Not a Witch.
Born in Zambia and raised in Wales, screenwriter-director Rungano Nyomi drew upon true stories of witch persecution she heard in her youth for this debut film.
She also did research by spending time in a modern “witch camp” in Ghana, observing the daily lives and rituals of these socially-damned outcasts.
According to Sundance, the film “debuted to rapturous applause” at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight, and the film has toured film festivals around the world.
As one watches this story unwind, one gets an increasingly sick feeling in the pit of the stomach. The viewer becomes more and more aware that while this tale of women’s oppression is so horrifyingly extreme that it can’t possibly be true, but we know that it is.
In the film, a beneficent modern government no longer executes witches. The “witches” are instead anchored to earth by long ribbons always secured to their shoulders. Tethered and unable to fly, they can do no harm to farmers, livestock or crops.
Their camps are bus stop tourist attractions and they do slave labor in the fields and quarries for the government. The local governor takes a liking to “Shula,” as the new girl is named by the governing witch, and enlists the girl to use her witchly powers in service of his own agenda.
At first, Shula becomes valuable to the governor as a star example of the wisdom and utility of his witch policies. But her story soon takes a darker turn…
This tale is fictional but the situation it depicts is very real, as witchcraft is still believed to be real in several modern-day countries in Africa and Asia. The convicted “witches” are in some regions made prisoner-slaves of the state; in others they are hunted down and stoned or burned to death.
Sometimes it takes the exaggeration of a dark satire – or a horror story – to illuminate something we are all complicit in, by the act of averting our eyes.