The director of I Am Not a Witch, Rungano Nyoni, was born in Zambia and emigrated to Great Britain when she was nine years old, growing up in Wales. The film takes place in Zambia, and the predominant language is Nyanja.
Eight-year-old Shula is accused of being a witch for the most ridiculous of reasons. She is told that if she doesn’t admit to being a witch, she will be turned into a goat. As absurd as this seems, it is worth keeping in mind that Shula is still a little girl, and she does not want to be turned into a goat. Shula is sent to a witch camp, where women, mostly elderly widows, are kept and forced to work in the fields or appear witchlike for tourists. If this seems bizarre, it is worth noting that Nyoni spent a month at a real witch camp in Ghana.
Considering that the women are obviously not witches, the question arises as to why they have been accused. Some of them have been put out of play because of family land rights and inheritance issues or because someone is jealous of their business success. One witch was accused by her own daughter, who now makes her living selling wigs and cosmetics to the witches. Other women end up in witch camp because some people need a scapegoat for their own failures, and older women are easy victims.
There is a tragic element to I Am Not a Witch, but it is primarily a humorous satire that pokes fun not only at superstitious rural Zambians, but at local politicians and others. One of the tasks of the witches is to divine who is guilty when a crime is committed. The local government official, Mr. Banda, chooses Shula to view a lineup of men after a theft has occurred. Of course, Shula has no idea how to pick out the guilty one. So, Banda pulls out his cell phone and puts Shula in touch with the elder women back at witch camp. They tell her what to look out for, and she makes the right decision.
I Am Not a Witch certainly exposes the exploitation of women by men. However, when Shula is finally allowed to attend classes and meet other children, it is the local chieftainess who orders her back to witch camp.
The film’s cinematographer, David Gallego, previously worked on Academy Award nominee Embrace of the Serpent.