I Am Not a Witch: Zambia Director Rungano Nyoni’s Powerful Tale, Featuring Maggie Mulubwa, Finally Getting Release

The National Society of Film Critics (NSFC), of which I am a proud member, recognizes every year excellent films that deserve theatrical distribution.

This essay was written in January of 2018, and I am happy to report now (July) that I Am Not a Witch is getting limited theatrical release in the U.S. in September.

Set in present-day Zambia, I Am Not a Witch is the impressive debut of writer-director Rungano Nyoni, featuring a great performance by a girl named Maggie Mulubwa.

Mulubwa plays orphan Shula, who is falsely accused of witchcraft and forced to join a travelling witch show. She’s mistreated yet also respected for her abilities to pick felons out of line-ups.

It all begins when eight-year-old Shula turns up alone and unannounced in a rural village, the locals are suspicious. A minor incident escalates to a full-blown witch trial, where she is found guilty and sentenced to life on a state-run witch camp.

Tethered to a long white ribbon, she is told that if she ever tries to run away, she will be transformed into a goat. As the days pass, Shula begins to settle into her new community, but a threat looms on the horizon. Soon she is forced to make a difficult decision–to resign herself to life on the camp, or take a risk for freedom.

The movie is effective both as a satire of patriarchy and gender stratification and as a critique of superstition and witchcraft.

Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), a public official who exploits Shula for profit, is a sexist patriarch who uses and abuses women for his own good.

At times moving, often funny and occasionally surreal, I Am Not a Witch offers provocative storytelling with flashes of anarchic humor, showcasing Nyoni as a significant new and original screen voice.

The Zambian-born, Welsh-raised director Nyoni spent time in actual ‘witch camps’ in order to observe first hand the operation of such archaic and dangerous institutions, finding their very existence to be utterly shocking.

The film was nominated for a 2018 Independent Spirit Award for Best International Film and a Golden Camera Award at Cannes Film Fest.

The film won the AFI Fest Audience Award and a nod for “Best British Independent Film.” It has also captured nine awards at the 2017 Adelaide Film Fest and “Best Directorial Debut” at the Stockholm Film Fest to “Best Director,” “Breakthrough Producer” (Emily Morgan) at the 2017 British Independent Film Awards and Nyoni’s BAFTA for Outstanding Debut by a British Writer, Director or Producer.