The title phrase is never uttered aloud in writer-director Rungano Nyoni’s “I Am Not a Witch,” a blisteringly comic critique of hysterical misogyny that plays like a slightly stoned version of “The Crucible” out in the wild.
Unfolding at a Zambian “witch camp” where wayward women and their mysterious powers are held responsible for all the wrongs in the world, Nyoni’s swaggeringly assured debut walks the line between inspired lunacy and abject devastation. Screening this weekend as part of the Boston Women’s Film Festival and then throughout the month of October at the MFA, “I Am Not a Witch” is one of this year’s very best films — a blast of absurdist outrage that’s seriously funny until all of the sudden it’s not anymore.
I’m told that there really are such things as witch camps in these African regions, but Nyoni — a native Zambian who grew up in Wales — is hardly interested in making a docudrama expose, and instead runs fast and loose with the symbolic upshots of such a concept. From the cheeky bursts of Vivaldi that accompany portly Western tourists in the opening shots she’s already establishing a bitterly farcical tone, one full of outlandish visual gambits and sly metaphors. The movie has a flip, punk-rock spirit straight out of the gate.
We soon meet a mostly mute 9-year-old nicknamed Shula (it means “uprooted,” though we never do find out from where). Played by the serene young Maggie Mulubwa, she’s minding her own business one afternoon when a neighbor stumbles and spills a jug of water, furiously informing the authorities that Shula and her sinister powers of witchcraft must be to blame.
The ensuing kangaroo court has more than a hint of Monty Python to it, with the sublimely staged spectacle of a mob of “witnesses” climbing in and out of a police station window to testify before a bored, gum-chewing paper-pusher. The movie’s “she turned me into a newt” moment finds a villager wildly gesticulating with the arm he claims this little girl chopped off with an ax. Shula’s quickly sentenced to a local witch camp, where like the other women she’s attached by a wide, white ribbon to a gigantic wooden spool — so she won’t fly away.
The bumbling Mr. Banda (a very amusing Henry B.J. Phiri) is in charge of all things witch-related at this makeshift labor farm, and he informs Shula that she remains free at anytime to cut her ribbon — but if she does she will be transformed into a goat and eaten by the people of the village. The more Mr. Banda talks, the more obvious it becomes that he has no idea what he’s going on about, B.S.-ing his way through a lot of made-up superstitions that are endorsed by male authority figures dumb enough to believe him and tolerated by women who are too tired to argue anymore.
Shula’s supernatural powers (she has none) quickly become a cause célèbre exploited by Banda on tacky talk shows where he tries to sell everything up to and including a line of “Shula-blessed eggs.” He’s even got an agricultural consulting firm claiming his witches can make it rain in this drought-ridden country. Nyoni spares nobody with her scatter-gun satire, from the hustlers selling phony religious answers to the suckers lining up to believe them. When things get bad everybody’s just gonna blame the nearest woman anyway, so why shouldn’t they try to cash in, too? We’re told by Banda’s wife that “respectability” is the way out of the camp, but that appears to come with a pretty hefty price tag.
“I Am Not a Witch” presents a modern Africa we seldom see in the movies, one full of late capitalist scraps where the cell phones never stop ringing. David Gallego’s timeless, postcard-vista cinematography is constantly interrupted by jarring blips of contemporary life, like Shula’s threadbare “#bootycall” T-shirt or the haunting vision of a pallbearer in over-sized headphones bopping along to Estelle and Kanye’s “American Boy.”
Nyoni is a ferocious talent with an eye for such loaded images. She also makes nimble use of freeze-frames and jagged music cues with an elbow-throwing confidence than can leave welts when you least expect it. There are a lot of haunting shots in “I Am Not a Witch,” but to my mind it’s tough to beat the public works truck (“an orange truck,” Banda boasts) stacked with massive spools of white ribbons, unfurled across the countryside as these women toil away in the fields, forever and foolishly tethered for no sane reason.