Deconstructing the Stigma of Witchery
By Christina Schultz
Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni’s award-winning debut film I Am Not a Witch poignantly thematizes the stigma of being a witch in her home country Zambia, a place steeped in tradition. However, the traditions might appear more like odd superstitions comically amplified to viewers from the Western World.
This absurd contrast between reality and possible fiction comes to life as the patriarchal society firmly in place in Zambia and the general authority of men are undermined and even threatened by a tight-knit matriarchal community of “witches,” who are kept like animals in the zoo by the government. Once accused and confirmed as witches, the women are bound to servitude in both the literal and metaphorical sense: the witches must wear white ribbons attached to mounted spools, allowing them to go only so far. When moved, the large spools and the mounts allude to a penetrating phallus, which seems to be no coincidence on the part of the director. The symbolism makes us think the women are beholden to their male keepers but relatively early on in the film, we, the feminist-minded viewers, realize the witches have the power to (figuratively) screw the men and not vice versa.
The male government official, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), wants to exploit the witches for his own benefit but depends on their cooperation. They are, among other things, an integral part of the justice system as they determine whether someone is guilty of committing a crime. They also perform manual labor, mainly fieldwork, which turns into profit. They are even put on display for tourists, resulting in one of the film’s funniest scenes. Without the witches’ cooperation, Zambia would certainly be worse off, so the film suggests.
The star of the film, an incredibly terse but bright eight-year-old orphan named Shula - played by Maggie Mulubwa with a poignancy seldom seen in children on screen - causes enough trouble to lead the townspeople to suspect she is a witch. All it takes to be accused is to be at the wrong place at the wrong time or to make people uncomfortable by doing the unexpected, which is not actual witchcraft, as far as am I concerned. Shula, whose name appropriately means “to be uprooted,” appears ungendered or unidentified when we first meet her. The prepubescent child wears neutral clothes (although one tragicomical camera shot reveals her in a shirt brandishing the phrase #bootycall) and has not yet found, or chooses not to use her voice. Her presence unsettles the townspeople and quickly she is coaxed into joining the witch community because otherwise she will become a goat, so she is warned.
Shula, while at first unhappy, quickly adjusts to her new life as a witch and lives happily among her matriarchal society. And even though being a witch is a decidedly female occupation, if you could call it that, she maintains her gender neutrality and much of her freedom. She becomes part of a family, gains respect and has opportunities she otherwise would not have had. Mr. Banda’s wife (Nancy Murilo), however, shows how deeply ingrained the hatred of witches, i.e. strong, emancipated kweens, and traditional gender roles are in society. She tells Shula that she herself was once a witch but she gained “respectability” through marriage, which set her free, allowing her to live a relatively lavish lifestyle with her husband. In other words, if witches change their “evil” ways and do as they are told, they can be released from their ribbons and their lifelong servitude. But aren’t they just exchanging one type of servitude for another? Is not the ribbon merely a physical limitation, a trifling nuisance, and the bonds of marriage and societal shackles placed on women a much worse kind of servitude?
It would seem that the answer is the stuff of Kindergarten because even eight-year-old Shula could not be hoodwinked by the glamor or the promise of “freedom.” Sure the witches might be persecuted or ridiculed, as witches have been throughout history in just about every part of the world, but they are free in a different way. Their independence is their strength. They are not repentant for their “non-conformist” behavior, they are not adherent to traditional female roles, they are not seeking out “respectability.” Shula is clearly happiest with her family, the people who embrace her for who she is. And that family, that group of people are all women. Women who care deeply for one another, who stick together through thick and thin, who embrace new members with open arms and would (more or less) prefer to live by different rules than the ones society expects of women. I would say the film’s message couldn’t get much more feminist. Yet the feminism on display here is not blatant; it is incredibly subtle, albeit undeniably present. It’s the kind of feminism that causes you to think about what is worth fighting for and what “freedom” really means. And in this aesthetically beautiful, narratively creative, emotionally moving film, it is quite freeing to be a “witch.”