Director and writer: Rungano Nyoni
Cast: Maggie Mulubwa, Henry B. J. Phiri, Nancy Murilo
93 mins, UK, 2017
In this beautiful, strange and compelling debut feature film by Rungano Nyoni (born in Zambia and raised in Wales), a small girl in rural Zambia, played with a luminous, enchanting grace by Maggie Mulubwa, stands accused of being a witch.
When nine-year-old Shula is named as a witch she is taken to a witch camp and offered the choice of admitting to being a witch and being tethered by a white ribbon attached to a wooden yoke on her back – or, being turned into a goat, and eaten. She chooses life, and the white ribbon.
Shula’s unmoving face is full of expression; her silence an eloquent comment on everything around her. Through her watchful eyes we see the fear-fuelled hate-filled villagers who want her to die; we see the tourists, white and black, who bring their smartphone cameras to the witch camp; we see self-serving Mr Banda – a brilliant performance from Henry B. J. Phiri – Minister for Tourism and Traditional Cultures, who recognises a great opportunity for himself in this new little witch in town; we see the elderly witches in the camp, vulnerable widows and single women sent there by greedy relatives or neighbours, forced to work as unpaid field labourers and tourist attractions. These outcast women are kind to Shula.
I read on the Watershed handout, which quotes an article on the BFI website, that Nyoni spent time researching witch camps in Ghana, a country where more camps are to be found than in mainly matriarchal Zambia. But misogyny is universal: those white ribbons – a wonderfully surreal invention by Nyoni – flutter in every country in the world.
Shula is a victim of the meeting of superstition with modern capitalism in post-colonial Africa, or rather a victim of the people who exploit both for their own advancement and profit. The film’s sharp social satire produces many hilarious moments. But she is also a lonely and frightened little girl, who has a smile – and she smiles only rarely – of such sweetness and innocence it almost breaks your heart.
Ismay says: Painful but beautiful. I laughed and cried, and any film that opens up my emotions like that is a must see.
The film is full of musical surprises, starting with Vivaldi’s Four Seasons sweeping across the arid landscape. It ends, after the rains have come, with the witch camp women, robed in red, singing a lamentation not just for the dead child but (as I interpreted it) for their own failure – and perhaps our failure too – to keep her safe.
Completely brilliant! I’d like to see it again!