Rounding out May Mayhem is our first film set in Zambia, though absolutely not our first film about witches. This is by far our most realistic witch film as we get a glimpse into the lives of women accused of witchcraft in present day Zambia. Intrigued yet? Let’s dive in.
I Am Not a Witch
A young girl accused of witchcraft is sent to live on a witch camp, where she is expected to work, use her powers to help the government, and solve the ongoing drought.
After an unnamed girl with no friends and no family arrives at a small Zambian village, she struggles to go quietly about her business. The girl, later named Shula, is the scapegoat for accidental falls and even bad dreams, leading to the witch word being thrown in her direction. Shula, who is virtually silent in all scenarios, neither confirms nor denies being a witch.
As a result, Mr. Banda, a government official declares she must be a witch since she doesn’t deny it. Nevertheless, he has a witch doctor make an official analysis involving a chicken dying in or outside of a circle. After this witch test, Shula is taken to live at a witch camp with other women who have been declared witches.
At the witch camp, the women are expected to work by farming, breaking rocks, and completing other manual labor. Each woman has a ribbon attached to a large spool, intended to keep the witches from running away. While the witch camp seems to be largely an opportunity for the local government to recruit unpaid laborers, the women do what they can to make the best of things, caring for one another and forming their own family in exile.
Shula soon learns that another duty of witches is to preside over court hearings and determine guilty parties in criminal cases. Of course, Shula has no supernatural insight into who is telling the truth, but she quickly earns a reputation as being a fair and accurate judge. While uncomfortable with this role, Shula must fulfill this role and condemn one of the suspects, whether guilty or not.
Because of Shula’s success, she spends some time with Mr. Banda and his wife at their obscenely gorgeous house. Mrs. Banda reveals she was once considered a witch but gained respectability through marriage. Shula must do as she is told and, if she is lucky, will end up in the same position.
In a bid to make some extra cash, Mr. Banda appears on a talk show with Shula. Once there, he tries to market special Shula eggs with magical properties. However, unexpectedly, the talk show host inquires about Shula’s education, serving as the catalyst for her attendance at school.
All of this takes place in the midst of a horrible drought that Shula is expected to resolve. After concerns that she isn’t prioritizing the drought, Shula is pulled from school despite quite enjoying it. This sends her into a downward spiral quickly–what is Shula meant to do when her future looks like nothing but serving the whims of others?
3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads
There’s no doubt this is an utterly unique film and has an important story to tell. So few films focus on African women, let alone those as marginalized as the witches in this story. The ribbons are a beautiful symbol of the literal and metaphorical restraint these women experience as a result of baseless accusations against them. An accusation of witchcraft seems to be a convenient opportunity for government officials to step in and recruit unpaid laborers (who also serve as a low-cost tourist attraction).
Shula herself exhibits an admirable strength of character despite the isolation and mistreatment she experiences. One of the tragedies of this film is her brief introduction to childhood, learning, and playing with others her own age, which is cut short by the superstitions of others. This to me is the turning point for Shula, when she experiences what her childhood could be only to have it snatched away–all of her quiet endurance seems to be for nothing.
That being said, I found the lack of narrative structure distracting. Like Shula’s life, our experience in the film is disorienting as we see her shuffled around unexpectedly with little explanation. The tone is uneven at times too, with much of the film being satirically funny but becoming incredibly bleak in the end. I wasn’t expecting such a merciless ending for this one that turned my guts to stone.