Gender equality and the lack thereof is a pressing issue around the world today. From the issue of unequal pay between men and women in the United States to the issue of female subjugation overall in the Middle East and Africa, gender equality is a very significant top of discussion. That is not to say that it is being ignored, as clearly advances have been and are being made in bridging the gender gap around the world. However, there is still work to be done. Independent movie company Film Movement did its own part in addressing the matter early this year with the domestic release of the Zambian import I Am Not A Witch. Writer/Director Runganoo Nyoni’s debut work, it is a powerful allegory about the gender gap that will keep viewers fully engaged from beginning to end. That story is just one part of what makes this movie stand out among this year’s crop of imports. The work of the movie’s cast plays into its presentation, too and will be addressed a little bit later. The bonus content included with the movie also plays into its presentation, and will be addressed a little bit later, too. Each noted item is important in its own way to the whole of I Am Not A Witch. All things considered, it can be said with ease that it is among the year’s best new independent movies.
Film Movement’s recently imported Zambian movie I Am Not A Witch is a powerful new allegory about gender equality and the lack thereof. Given, it is hardly the first story to ever focus on the topic, but its approach to the subject through its story makes it stand out among that mass of movies. The story follows Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) as she is accused of witchcraft and sent to live in a community with other women who have been accused of witchcraft. No solid proof is ever given of Shula being a witch, but she never fights the charge. This is part of what makes the story so gripping, believe it or no. It will be discussed more as the cast’s on-camera work is addressed. After the other women in the community save Shula from having to work in the fields, she ends up being exploited by them and by the corrupt government official, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri). This dual exploitation by Banda and her fellow community members, coupled with her continued exile with the other “witches” is certain to generate plenty of discussion among audiences. Forcing the women to live their lives tethered to giant spools of ribbon so that they cannot go but so far adds even more to that discussion. It is a physical metaphor to that glass ceiling, which so many societies keep women from breaking through. Not to give away too much, but the story does not have a happy ending. Rather, the ending is quite bittersweet to say the absolute least. It is an ending that will stick in viewers’ minds long after the movie ends as it puts a very powerful period on the statement about the impact of socially created gender inequality. The story overall will easily lead audiences to make comparisons to the Salem Witch Trials of 1692. However, audiences will learn through the movie’s bonus content that those trials were not the inspiration for the movie. Rather, Nyoni confirms in the noted content that her real-life experience, meeting Ghanaian women accused of witchcraft served as the inspiration for the story. That and other revelations made in the bonus content will be discussed a little later. Getting back on the subject at hand, Nyoni’s approach to the story’s core subject makes it even more engaging. It would have been so easy for her to allow the story to become another run-of-the-mill preachy finger-pointer. She did not go that route, though. Rather, she opted to take a route that made the story engaging yet simple enough in its approach that it ensures audiences get the story’s message. In other words, the story does everything right. It is just one part of what makes I Am Not A Witch stand out. The work of the movie’s cast plays into the movie’s presentation, too.
The work of the movie’s main cast – Mulubwa and Phiri – is important to note in that neither actor is a professional. The juxtaposition of Banda’s vile persona to that of Shula’s innocence is expertly displayed by Phiri and Mulubwa. For being “non-professional,” each actor’s work is quite impressive. Mulubwa’s handling of Shula as she endures her constant mistreatment makes Shula the very epitome of a sympathetic character. Shula’s stoicism as she is dragged from her class mates and as she is initially accused of being a witch are just a couple of examples of Mulubwa’s acting ability. It makes viewers root for her so much. The contradiction of those moments with Shula’s happier moments – spending time with her class mates on her first day of school and her personal time with Mr. Banda’s wife – makes her even more endearing. It shows that Shula is human and has emotions, yet is being forced to hold in her emotions because she knows that those controlling her don’t care about her emotions. She knows that she is being suppressed. This in itself is an illustration of what so many women endure every day around the world.
Phiri’s take on Mr. Banda is notable because he does such an impressive job of making Mr. Banda a despicable figure. From that first interaction when Banda is telling Shula that he and Shula will work together to the later moment when he threatens to send her back to work with the other “witches,” Banda proves to be a figure that audiences will love to hate. Phiri’s body language and his facial reactions as he tells Shula about working together creates a comparison to so many dopey TV bad guys, such as Boss Hogg (Dukes of Hazard), Col. Klink (Hogan’s Heroes) and Dean Wormer (Animal House). That’s thanks to Banda’s dopey presence in this moment. By contrast, his fury following the failed interaction between Shula and the government official shows a completely different person. He yells at his wife much in the same way that he did Shula later on when she refused to unlock the van for him. Banda’s wife worked to try and get Shula to react. She was presenting a sort of motherly presence, and made her just as sympathetic as Shula. That contrast to Banda’s fiery overreaction adds even more to viewers’ dislike of Banda. It illustrates even more, that Banda is doing everything that he is doing just for himself. That is revealed even more as he takes Shula on TV and is accused of mistreating her by one of the show’s callers. Between these noted moments and plenty of others, the whole of Phiri’s performance proves just as entertaining as that of Mulubwa. When their collective performances are coupled with the engagement ensured by the movie’s story, the movie’s presentation, gives viewers plenty to appreciate. They are not the only important elements to examine, of course. The movie’s bonus content is worth noting, too.
The bonus content featured in Film Movement’s DVD release of I Am Not A Witch includes a brief interview with Nyoni as well as extra background information on the movie printed inside the DVD’s case and a short film, titled Mwansa The Great. The short film is interesting in its own right, but has nothing to add in terms of the primary content that is I Am Not A Witch. The interview with Nyoni, which runs roughly three minutes, is brief. However, audiences do gain some appreciation for the movie after hearing what she had to say about the movie. Nyoni notes during her comments, that she did quite a bit of research on witches prior to writing her story, and even spent time visiting witch camps. In addition, she talks about her frustration of how the women accused of witchcraft are exploited in those real life camps. She also confirms that she intentionally wrote the story in a fashion that would make it accessible for any viewer. There is also an interesting revelation about the change in the movie’s backdrop and Shula’s own development as a character. This is one of the most important of Nyoni’s statements, as most audiences (this critic included) will not catch that connection in their initial watch. That being the case, it creates a certain “aha” moment for viewers, and in turn, will create even more appreciation for the movie in viewers’ minds.
Nyoni’s brief, yet insightful interview is just part of what makes the movie’s bonus content notable. The background information provided in the movie’s packaging generates even more appreciation for the movie. It includes comments from Nyoni not included in the bonus interview, such as the revelation that Zambia, in reality, is in fact a very egalitarian society, and that the inspiration for this story came from visits to witch camps in Ghana. Film Movement’s statement as to why the company added this movie to its collection of offerings notes what makes the story stand out – its reflection of what women around the world endure in terms of their mistreatment by society. Between this background, the background offered by Nyoni in the movie’s “liner notes” and her comments in the bonus interview, the bonus content provided with I Am Not A Witch proves to be its own important part of the movie’s presentation. When it is considered along with the work of the movie’s lead actors and the story itself, the three elements together make I Am Not A Witch a movie that anyone is a welcome alternative to Hollywood’s unending barrage of prequels, sequels, reboots and stories based on actual events. It is a very bittersweet human drama, but one that is memorable because of that nature.
Film Movement’s recently imported human drama I Am Not A Witch is a powerful presentation that holds its own easily against Hollywood’s unending barrage of prequels, sequels, reboots and stories that are based on actual events. That is proven in part through a story that makes a key statement without preaching about its central topic. The work of the movie’s lead actors does just as much to keep viewers engaged. The bonus content featured with the movie generates its own share of interest in the movie. Each item is important in its own right to the whole of I Am Not A Witch. All things considered, the movie proves to be one of this year’s top new indie imports. More information on this and other titles from Film Movement is available online at:
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