The persecution of witches has played a fundamental role in the development of capitalism over the last four hundred years. It weakens the ability of communities to reproduce themselves by destroying one of their greatest assets – women. And it creates an essential divide in the working class along gender lines, what Silvia Federici calls ‘the accumulation of difference’. The semi-fictional, only semi-serious world of I am Not a Witch (2017) suggests a third role for witches in our globalised world: tourist attractions for curious Westerners.
One of the funniest scenes sees an American backpacker trying to take a selfie with the young ‘witch’ at the centre of the film. This ten-year-old girl - nomadic and alone - was taken to the witch compound after her community accused her of sorcery. Her youth is a novelty, and she has an implacable star that emits authority and vulnerability, which a local politician exploits, taking her around the country settling civil disputes. The sharpest scenes rotate around this pompous governor. Early on, in the zoo-like enclosure, he lectures the captive women, claiming that there is a mutually beneficial relationship between the witches and the state. He bestows the title of ‘civil witch’ on the young protagonist, to quiet exasperation. Some of the other humour is less subtle. A trial scene in which an old man’s phone rings repeatedly during his testimony crudely expects the dissonance between ancient custom and modern technology to be enough for laughs.
The most arresting images all include the group of witches, tethered to giant spools of ribbon that act as mobile prison cells. They sit drinking gin. They work the land. They’re lined up for the amusement of tourists. It’s a powerful metaphor, and one that usefully links the plight of witches to the plight of women more generally. Perhaps first-time director Rungano Nyoni relies on this visual too heavily, but it’s impossible to deny its profound simplicity. The final shot – ribbons twirling in the wind – is strangely peaceful. This is a light film on a heavy subject, but is that a compliment or a criticism?