Witchcraft. A topic often shrouded in mystery and speculation. Dismissed by many who feel it is nothing more than an attempt by the masses not to embrace scientific explanations for strange occurrences. Yet there are many more who would attest to the legitimacy of claims that dark forces are at play. That there remain certain people endowed with supernatural powers that they use not for the good of others, but to bring ill and misfortune.
In cinematic history Hollywood has fluctuated in its portrayals of witchcraft. Invariably witches and wizards can be cast as good or bad. For every shrill voiced, wart faced witch, clad in a pointy witch’s hat, hell bent on destroying the protagonist, there has been a malevolent good witch, who acts as a guardian and uses her powers for justice.
In recent times the distinction has not always been so clear. Witches, and wizards for that matter, with less than honourable intentions, have been cast in a somewhat positive light. With audiences called upon to get behind such characters. Witchcraft seen as neither good nor bad, but just another lifestyle. Albeit one not accessible to just anybody.
African cinema has not been so ambivalent in its projections though. With rare exceptions, witches are not readily welcomed by characters, and audiences are left in no doubt that they are antagonists. Cast to shed light, or darkness as the case may be, upon the hero or heroine due to their evil ways and schemes.
This is no more than a reflection of African society. There is no talk of good witches. Or even neutral ones. Any association with witchcraft is not an indication of lifestyle but an indictment. One that explains the illnesses and misfortunes of those in the around.
The deep contrast in the perceptions and portrayals of witchcraft in African and western societies and cinema collided in when Rugano Nyoni, a British born Zambian director addressed the topic in her latest offering, I Am Not A Witch.
I Am Not A Witch is a bold attempt by Nyoni to take a satirical look at the superstitions and stigma surrounding withcraft in her directorial debut.
The film follows the fortunes of a young girl named Shula, who after being accused of witchcraft is exiled to a witch camp. Witch camps are placed where women accused of being witches are confined, separate from the general community. This is to remove any ‘threat’ to people that the witches may carry.
While interred in the camp Shula must deal with the camp manager, the shrewd public official Mr Banda. A man who does not mind harnessing the witches’ ‘powers’ for his own entrepreneurial ends. Though not a story about Shula’s exploitation, the film does allegorise the plight of the vulnerable in our communities and society at large.
An entertaining movie that draws upon the superstitions of some communities, I Am Not A Witch is a welcome addition to the local movie landscape. With Zambian movie and theatre having suffered a prolonged dip from the days of Playcircle, much motivation is need for local filmmakers.
Though a British-French production, the cast were almost entirely Zambian. Among the names that may be recognised by local theatre goers is Henry BJ Phiri, who plays Mr Banda. As ever Phiri gives a memorable performance. His character, a shady, to put it mildly, public official, is eager to put Shula to work in all manner of ways. Complicit to her being condemned as a witch yet not above embracing any chance to make use of her. His character perfectly sums up the attitude of so many to a myriad of social ills. Openly condemned when convenient but also harnessed for advancement.
A welcome addition to the cast is young Margaret Mulubwa who plays Shula. Nearly 1000 children were auditioned for the role. However, the Nyoni could not find exactly what she was looking for. Then she remembered a picture of a young girl that her husband had once taken. Feeling that young girl had the exact look she wanted for her main character Nyoni set about tracking her down. She tells of how she sent a WhatsApp message to the chief of the area the girl was from with a picture of the girl. Which picture the chief in turn forwarded to his subjects, until the girl was tracked down. Once found, Margaret agreed to appear in the film, and justified the lengths to which she was sought.