2018 Milwaukee Film Festival – Review – I AM NOT A WITCH
I AM NOT A WITCH is one of the most intriguing films playing at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival. The debut film of Zambian-Welsh director Rungano Nyoni, the film has already won a BAFTA, screened at Cannes, and been selected by the UK as their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award. It’s already established itself with a strong reputation. Even better, it lives up to that reputation.
The film follows an apparent orphan girl Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) who is accused of witchcraft when a woman spills a bucket of water and the only one to blame in the vicinity is the girl. Soon, Shula, without representation, is deported to witch camp, attached to a white ribbon which restricts her movements to a certain vicinity, and then exploited either through forced labor or as a symbol by the bureaucrat in charge. Oh, this is set in modern day Zambia with smart phones and television programs on which Shula appears which adds an air of ridiculousness to the whole enterprise. It would be funny if it wasn’t so cruel and inhumane.
My understanding is that these witch camps actually exist in modern day Zambia and Ghana. And, they’re apparently popular with tourists, which the film makes a point of implicating. As a point of activism, I AM NOT A WITCH stands a good chance of creating actual change. That’s enough to root for the film. What’s even better, is you don’t have to make excuses for a film that has its heart in the right place, because the film is put together with tremendous intelligence and craft. I AM NOT A WITCH may be the first feature for Rungano Nyoni, but it drips with confidence. Every shot is beautiful, the point is always clear, and tonally it all works together to indict a crime against women without ever coming off as strident.
It’s helped tremendously by the performance of Maggie Mulubwa. She has few lines, but her expressive face speaks volumes. The few moments of joy and friendship she communicates are so genuine that it’s heartbreaking when she’s pulled away. Often literally.
There are very few missteps in I AM NOT A WITCH. Perhaps it makes its points against Shula’s exploitation so well that it becomes a bit redundant. And, perhaps how it handles its ending via ellipsis stands in the way of understanding if a moment is literal or symbolic. But, even with those quibbles, I AM NOT A WITCH is a strong film. It’s in the Competition Program and it wouldn’t be a surprise if it wins. And if we’re talking about it when the Academy announces its nominations in a few months.
I AM NOT A WITCH plays twice more at the 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival on Saturday, October 27at 6:30 pm at the Fox Bay Cinema Grill and on Wednesday, October 31at 3:00 pm at the Avalon Theater. I expect that it will rank as one of the best films of the festival.
The 2018 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 18, 2018 to November 1, 2018. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website.