The world Rugando Nyoni establishes in her debut feature I Am Not a Witch is so far removed from my own that it’s difficult to tell exactly where its true realism stops and its magical realism begins. Zambian born and residing in Wales, Nyoni clearly has plenty of real-world issues on her mind in her satirical look back on her African birthplace: governmental corruption, colonialist tourism, the subjugation of women, the clash of traditional ideals with worldwide homogenization, etc. Without contextual research, however, it’s impossible to parse out exactly how much of its minute-to-minute details are heighted for satirical effect. Its central story follows a young Zambian orphan who is accused of witchcraft by a local villager and subsequently sentenced to live out her entire life in a government-owned labor camp with other “witches,” who are all elderly women. As an outsider with no context for Zambian government structure or folklore, this premise initially seems plausible enough, or at least something I’m hesitant to question. From there, the details sprawl further into the realm of absurdist fantasy. The “witches” are tethered to spools of white ribbons that prevent them from flying away. The young girl can magically hear nearby schoolhouse lectures through a plastic funnel with superhuman clarity. The local economy appears to be built entirely on trading bottles of gin. There’s a lot of real-world pain & oppression at the center of I Am Not a Witch, but it’s all filtered through a disorienting, absurdist layer of satirical exaggeration.
While the obscurity & severity of its subject make it sound like a miserable watch, Nyoni smartly disarms I Am Not a Witch’s overt misery with a weaponized sense of humor. It may sound heartless to label a story about a young girl sentenced to a lifelong labor camp where she’s gawked at as a tourist attraction a comedy, but there’s a very broad, purposeful line of humor that runs throughout the film. The girl herself (played by newcomer Maggie Mulubwa) is mostly a silent, put-upon observer, but the world around her is increasingly absurd. Her t-shirt that reads “#bootycall,” the government goon who parades her around in public as a sideshow attraction, and the clueless white tourists who snap her photos as keepsakes all feel like they belong to a much broader comedy, confusing the borders of her real-life crisis. Nyoni & Mulubwa never lose sight of the seriousness her gendered subjugation represents, but a spoonful of humor often sweetens the medicine of that real-world issue so that the film is also palatable as an entertainment, caustically so. That absurdism can also achieve a sense of lyrical poetry, especially in the visual motif of the ribbons that keep the “witches” tethered to the earth and in the overwhelming orchestral score that heightens the atmosphere. The film’s overall tone is one of disturbed beauty and deep heart-heavy despair, but its function as a political satire also means that it finds plenty of morbid laughs to be had along the way.
I’m trying to imagine the inverse equivalent of what someone interpreting my own country & culture through this distorted of a lens might look like. If, for instance, a Zambian audience’s first vision of America were last year’s over-the-top sci-fi satire Sorry to Bother You, they might have a difficult time parsing out what was true & what was satirical exaggeration. However, Boots Riley’s film would still convey something very real about the corporate-labor hell we all live under here, no matter how fantastic the third-act details, and I suspect my own experience with I Am Not a Witch is much the same. I know too little of witchcraft’s place in modern Zambian culture to say for sure what is an absurdist exaggeration vs. what is a true-life cultural or governmental ill. Still, it’s easy to tell Nyoni is unloading some very real frustration about gendered oppression in that cultural context here, whether expressed through poetic lyricism, absurdist humor, genuine heartfelt despair, or a mesmerizing cocktail of all three.