Even if writer-director Rungano Nyoni’s I Am Not a Witch were a lesser film — less complicated, less bitterly funny, less bluntly sad — it would still have the witch truck, one of the great cinematic images of this or any other year. I almost hesitate to describe it, because I fear detracting from the power of its first appearance, but it’s such a salient part of the film’s unsettling appeal.
The witch truck is an old orange flatbed, purchased by the rotund and rotten government operative Mr. Banda for the transport of his private coven of witches, a group of mostly older women unlucky enough to have been accused and convicted of supernatural shenanigans by their fellow Zambians, to and from their various work details. Said flatbed is festooned with tall poles set at odd angles, like the spines of some mechanized porcupine, and set atop every pole is an oversized spool of white ribbon — a witch tether. The ends of the tethers are attached to the witches’ garments — to keep them from flying, don’t you know, flying and killing the way witches do. And while they’re just ribbons and not chains, they’re more than strong enough for the job, because if you cut your ribbon, you turn into a goat.
The witch truck looks like it just drove off the set of Mad Max: Fury Road. But I Am Not a Witch is not a futuristic dystopian fantasy. It is simply a present-day dystopian drama, one in which the “civil witches” work “in cooperation with the government” to promote tourism and do field work, singing “We’re used to it and we don’t get tired” to comfort themselves at the end of the day. As long as the rains aren’t coming, it’s a good thing the tourists are, and Mr. Banda knows that outsiders are attracted to the idea of witches almost as much as locals are repelled by them. And if the witch is young and mysterious? So much the better.
Into this sun-baked nightmare comes a quiet little girl who eventually gets dubbed Shula. She’s ripe for accusation: she has no family, no one knows where she’s from, and she cannot bring herself to speak in her own defense. A woman trips and spills her water pail in Shula’s presence. A man has a dream in which she attacks him. She does not deny she’s a witch, and off she goes. And at least at first, a tethered life amid the friendly matrons of the coven seems vastly preferable to the unprotected wanderings of a goat.
Writer-director Nyoni takes an unhurried approach to the proceedings, savoring every strange horror and awkward situation. And there are so many awkward situations, full of awful and solemn comedy — such as when Mr. Banda takes Shula onto a local TV show in an effort to pitch Shula Eggs (“they bring back the life in your breakfast”) and gets called out for exploiting an ordinary child and not putting her in school, or when Shula gets on a cell phone to her fellow witches in order to figure out which suspect in a lineup is the guilty party. (“Pick the dark one!” “The one who is looking down!”) She also refuses to make things easy on the viewer, insisting on the sad humanity of all involved, witch or otherwise, and insisting also on ambiguity over certainty in what she shows and what she keeps just offscreen. It’s a remarkably assured debut, one that knows its strengths and plays to them, right up to the witch truck’s final, haunting appearance at the film’s conclusion.