Friday 20 October 2017

Out of Africa: "I Am Not a Witch"

Whisper it softly, but there are signs the British film industry may be moving beyond providing jobs for the usual boys. I Am Not a Witch, the spellbinding feature debut of the black British writer-director Rungano Nyoni, was shot on location in Zambia with money from the Film Agency for Wales, among a panoply of European funding bodies, and just one of the points in its favour is that you very much feel the Daily Mail is going to have a coronary should it happen to get a load of this. From the off, Nyoni places us in what, for the majority of UK cinemagoers, will be unfamiliar territory: she acknowledges as much by opening upon the sight of a coach full of tourists - including one prominent white body, the last but one we will see in the entire picture - heading towards a village where a puzzling tableau-cum-photo opportunity is being staged involving local women and yards of flowing ribbon.

The story, on the other hand, is as upfront as that title. At a police station elsewhere in the same village, Shula (Margaret Mulubwa), an eight-year-old in a #bootycall top, is accused by her elders of witchcraft. It is, patently, an absurd claim, and one that begets an absurd procedural: in place of evidence-gathering or forensic tests, a witch doctor is brought in to slit a chicken's throat to determine whether or not the girl is what she's accused of being. Her status decided, Shula is shuttled off to "witch camp", which turns out to be that earlier tourist destination, a state-approved holding site whose exclusively female residents are kept on big spools of ribbon to prevent them running amok. It makes for almost as striking a metaphor for the subjugation of women as it does an image on screen, yet the girl has boundless youth and a defiant spirit on her side. We already sense that, one way or another, she won't be here for long.

What's startling is that we're not in some unenlightened past or dystopian future: I Am Not a Witch, forever present-tense, unfolds in the here-and-now, and it very quickly becomes clear Nyoni means to satirise some of the less progressive aspects of African life. With the state massively over-estimating her witchy wisdom, Shula finds herself being deployed as a trial judge, and having to call a friend or two back at camp to determine which of the suspects put before her is a thief ("Pick the dark one," comes the advice); later, the authorities, worried about a possible drought, call upon her as a weather forecaster. Her government handler's wife, a picture of new money in her flashy clothes and blonde highlights, lectures her in turn on earning respectability through marriage. Listening from afar - through a conch, indeed - to her contemporaries at play, Shula is surely receiving an alternative schooling in what it is to be a woman in certain corners of the world: as a funny scene with a beautician touting a line of "Micki Ninaj" wigs helps to demonstrate, it is often deemed a matter of fluttering false eyelashes until a successful man comes along to rescue you.

If the film overall leans in the direction of the allegorical, the performers seem too flesh-and-blood, too in-the-moment merely to serve as abstractions. Henry B.J. Phiri makes for a tremendous blusterer as Shula's titled chaperone Mr. Banda ("Minister for Tourism and Traditional Beliefs"), possibly a descendant of the impotent bureaucrat of Ousmane Sembene's great African satire Xala, and absolutely the kind of successful man Nyoni intends to skewer; first seen getting his wife to scrub his back in the bath, he's later all glad hands and fake smiles when touting his young charge on a TV talk show, and finally reduced to grovelling on his hands and knees before a queen. Against him, Mulubwa's sullen, downturned gaze - her refusal to make nice, or play the role desired of her - makes Shula an extremely effective symbol of resistance, although her smile, when it comes, should be enough to melt any onlooker's heart. 

Mostly, you're struck by the advantages of having someone behind the camera who wasn't breastfed on Brideshead, and who accordingly thinks in big, widescreen images: she recruits the adventurous cinematographer David Gallego (Embrace of the Serpent) to capture such sights as the witches lined up on a flatbed truck for easier transportation, or Shula flapping her arms in a bid to rise above a scorched-earth landscape. Nyoni is singularly unafraid of strangeness - of images and ideas that don't initially appear to make sense, but are allowed to take shape, breathe and fly before our eyes - where so many of her countrymen have been given to caution. That caution may be a consequence of working within an industry geared more towards the well-made film - neat, tidy things, destined for a BAFTA screenplay nod and an afterlife in the Sunday matinee slot on ITV3 - than it is towards genuine marvels. A marvel this is, though: you emerge amazed both that Nyoni ever got it funded (imagine the pitch meetings!), and at just how resonantly the film has turned out. Shorn of the usual deferences, equivocations and compromises, here is a British film that actually looks and feels like cinema: raise it high, and set it loose into the world.

I Am Not a Witch opens in selected cinemas from today. 

No comments:

Post a Comment