It is only since 1991 that the United Kingdom has submitted films for Oscar consideration in the category of foreign-language film. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of those works — which must have primarily non-English dialogue — feature, at least in part, the Welsh language (although some films have included Filipino, Urdu and a handful of tongues spoken far from the British Isles). For the 91st Academy Awards, the country’s official submission is the beautiful and unsettling parable of African womanhood “I Am Not a Witch,” the feature directorial debut of the Zambian-born filmmaker Rungano Nyoni, who moved to Cardiff with her family as a girl.
It is a remarkable, strange and politically potent first film.
Shot in and around Zambia’s capital of Lusaka using a cast of nonprofessional actors and featuring improvised dialogue in indigenous Zambian dialects — as well as a smattering of English — the film is, by Nyoni’s description, a fairy tale, although it was inspired by customs and practices that have been in place in Africa for centuries. The story it tells centers on Shula, an 8-year-old orphan who, having been accused of witchcraft, is banished to a rural “witch camp” where women many decades older than her perform menial labor, tethered to long white ribbons. If they cut their flimsy leashes, they have been told, they will turn into goats and be slaughtered and eaten.
It’s an obvious metaphor for a culture of subjugation — too obvious, perhaps, at times — and the young Maggie Mulubwa, in the largely wordless role of Shula, conveys a sense of deeply affecting bewilderment and resignation at her fate. For her part, Nyoni works hard to subvert the audience’s expectations of where this story is going: When Shula seems to demonstrate surprising gifts, the girl ends up being taken in by Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), a government official from something called the Ministry of Tourism and Traditional Beliefs. Banda’s wife, as it turns out, is herself a former witch, and has been given — or has simply taken on — a surprising degree of autonomy.
Or has she? One constant question that the film raises is what constitutes true power and genuine liberation.
Darkly funny at times, but also leaving a bitter aftertaste, “I Am Not a Witch” refuses to make the answer to that question clear, in scenes that lurch from the studio of a TV talk show, where a female rapper performs, to a rural village, where older witches try on wigs inspired by the hairstyles of such American pop stars as Madonna, Beyoncé and Rihanna. The implication is hard to miss here: This isn’t a Third World problem.
Nyoni’s message is not always so easily understood, and the film rambles at times. At the same time, like Shula, it never strays too far from the fixed and unshakable point that change is possible.
Unrated. At the Avalon. Contains mature thematic material and a bit of blood. In English, Bemba, Nyanja and Tonga with subtitles. 93 minutes.