I watched this movie as part of our preparations for the Library’s upcoming “Armchair Traveler” Series, which starts later this month. It is available through Kanopy, the Library’s free video- streaming service.
This award-winning film — by a Zambian-born, Welsh-raised director named Rungano Nyoni — is set in present day Zambia. The movie opens as a mini-bus arrives at a local tourist attraction. The people on the bus have paid to come see a crude “pen” filled with witches, all of whom are tethered by long white ribbons. The women are dressed for their part, but are old and tired; they seem distant and bored. The tour guide assures the visitors that the ribbons are necessary because it keeps the witches from flying away and killing people. (These women do not look like killers.) By the time I had taken in what was going on in this little tableau, the scene switched. This technique continues: the whole film is a series of short, stark, satiric snapshots of the witches and their exploiters.
We then meet a little girl who ultimately is given no choice but to join this strange coven. She appears out of nowhere as a local woman is carrying water home from the local water hole. The woman is startled by the sudden presence of the girl, and drops her water container. Her frustration with the wide-eyed, silent child is palpable, and even when the girl tries to replace the lost water, the woman wants retribution. This leads to a scene in the local police station, where she accuses the girl of being a witch and demands justice. There is a vocal crowd outside that adds to the tension you feel for the little girl, who remains silent. She will not admit to being a witch, but cannot defend herself either. She is ultimately sent to join the other witches; they name her (Shula), and become her advocates and teachers.
From this point on, the child actress who portrays Shula steals the show. With each little tableau that follows, Shula’s experiences (and facial expressions) reveal the ridiculous exploitation all these women are subjected to by the weirdly backward and corrupt local government. She enjoys some moments of local celebrity, both humorous and sad. In the end, you realize that the only real choices presented to her and the other witches are to behave and submit to being labeled and tethered, or to risk the dangers of cutting the ribbon. (The girl is warned early on that such a choice could result in being turned into a goat and being eaten.) The movie’s short, tense scenes lead you straight to the point where Shula makes her choice.
There are still real “witch camps” throughout Africa, so even though Nyoni’s movie has dream-like qualities to it, as well as moments of absurd silliness, it’s clear that the film’s message is grounded in a pretty harsh reality.
This is a movie that will definitely keep your attention to the end, even if you can’t quite figure out what’s going on. It was good enough that I felt compelled to read more about the film when it was over. And I think it would be worth watching again to pick up more about Nyoni’s intention and the subtle details that I probably missed the first time around.
Review by Roberta Jordan, the Outreach and Instruction Librarian.
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