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I Am Not A Witch **1/2

by Ruben Rosario

A ruthless and ferocious evisceration of pervasive misogyny in her native Zambia, Rungano Nyoni's BAFTA-winning satire hits its targets with deadpan aplomb, but it's hampered by the void at its core: a protagonist who's more symbol than human being. 

Is it worth $10? Yes 
 
They sit around like animals in a zoo, reduced to a sideshow attraction in what closely resembles an African safari. The opening moments of “I Am Not a Witch” sets the tone for the poker-faced but frequently outrageous movie that follows. The camera is placed in the back row of a van, as it pulls up on a state facility in the Republic of Zambia. Passengers exit the vehicle to take in the wildlife, but this isn't just another nature reserve on their tour. It's a camp for witches.

The women are seen sitting together, their faces caked in white. They even begin snarling directly at the camera at one point. But they're not the main focus of writer-director Rungano Nyoni's allegorical tale.  That would be a quiet girl prone to creeping up on villagers just going about their day. It doesn't take long for the unsettled folks to bring the little lurker to the authorities and accuse her of witchcraft. That girl, her accusers claim as they point at the eight-year-old suspect (Maggie Mulubwa), is an evil presence and must be dealt with accordingly.

Enter Mr. Banda, minister of tourism and traditional beliefs (Henry B.J. Phiri), who sees in the girl an opportunity to exploit, er, make an upstanding citizen out of her. So he does the most sensible thing: send her to witch camp, a containment unit for women who have been declared as witches. Like the others, she ends up tethered to a pole by a white ribbon. Cut off that thread, Mr. Banda warns her, and you'll turn into a goat. She just looks at them, a silent witness abruptly denied free will. The other women take her under their wing and name her Shula, which means to be uprooted.

It takes some time to acclimate oneself to the inherent weirdness in Nyoni's outlandish scenario, which follows Shula as Mr. Banda uses the girl's “powers” to solve small-claims issues between villagers. The pint-sized People's Court judge also gets to meet Banda's trophy wife (also a witch), who teaches Shula the value of doing as she's told and “respect through marriage.” Why, she could end up trading the confines of the camp for the lap of luxury ... as long as Banda's wife remembers to pour gin on her doorstep before letting Shula into her home. You know, to ward off bad spirits. It's safe to say we're worlds away from the Salem witch trials.

If the absurdism on screen sounds insufferably broad and over the top, rest assured that Nyoni, born in Zambia but raised in Wales, stamps out anything that could be construed as an easy laugh. This turns out to be “Witch's” strongest asset and one of its biggest drawbacks. The filmmaker has crafted a portrait of institutionalized chauvinism that's undeniably on point but so vicious that the laughs are few and far between. In other words, this is not a popcorn moviegoer's satire.

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Which is not to say there isn't entertainment value in Shula's journey. She absorbs one indignity after another like a sponge. When things get scary, such as when she she witnesses Banda's wife being attacked by outraged townsfolk, Nyoni hits pay dirt. There's nothing subtle about those ribbons that controls these witches' movements, but as lensed by Colombian cinematographer David Gallego (“Embrace of the Serpent”), they increasingly begin to resemble puppet strings, the better for the patriarchy to maintain a vise-like grip on them. More than a glass ceiling, these photogenic ribbons, which can be retracted as if you were putting away a garden hose, deprive Zambia's witches of any agency, limiting their voice to a little ditty that goes, “We're soldiers for the government, and we're used to it.”

And yet the bone-dry humor, which incinerates its targets with laserlike precision, renders stretches of “I Am Not a Witch” a tad too arid for this reviewer. It's not difficult to see why it won a BAFTA award for best first feature by a British filmmaker earlier this year, but was it too much to ask to give Shula more to do than be the sounding board for Nyoni's critique of a corrupt system where women are treated like second-class citizens? Shula is undeniably effective as a walking metaphor, but there's a gaping hole where the character's personality should be.

There's no escaping the irony of a child performing a governing body's job better than its elected officials, but the film's episodic structure causes this witch's brew to plateau early, paving the way for a conclusion that feels preordained. Before it's pushed into a narrative corner, however, “I Am Not a Witch” serves as a potent reminder that corruption and discrimination know no national borders.