A film that was screened at the Cannes Film Festival in May has its worldwide premiere in a few weeks and its subject matter could not be more timely. I Am Not a Witch tells the true story of witch camps in modern-day Ghana and Zambia where women – from children to the elderly -- are controlled and exploited by men whose only power is fear and hoodoo trinkets. In the process of telling the stories, the female director exposes the modern “chieftains” who control women in both of her home countries.
“There are different reasons as to why they ended up there. When I asked them why they had been accused, many seemed to think it was jealousy. Some of them had started a business in their village and then when the business did well, the accusations followed. A lot of them were widows. And when you’re a widow you’re quite vulnerable in certain places.”
As Zambian-born Welsh director Rungano Nyoni explains in a recent interview in the Irish Times, “there” can be a small village or a traveling labor camp. “They” are generally elderly women, but the witch camps also contain many children, one of whom becomes the focal point of her film.
“It’s not the belief that I’m against, or that I question, because spooky things happen all the time in Zambia. It’s that the witch accusations, are always aimed at older women or children. This is the bit I find absurd.”
How absurd? Besides growing up in Zambia, Nyoni’s research included spending a month in a witch camp, where she saw women who believed that could be controlled by male chieftains with feathered hoodoo trinkets, vials of blood, chicken bones or an invisible shrine that only the chieftain can see or walk through. She saw a mute orphan, whose disability was called a sign of witchcraft, brought to the camp where the chieftain claimed to use her to solve crimes and convinced her a ribbon tied around her waist kept her from escaping.
Historically around the world, elderly women are called witches for no other reason than being old. How did the others get there and why do these women, who outnumber the men controlling the village, stay there?
“If a family member accuses you, then they can take your house. I met this one woman who said: ‘We’re women and we’re the weaker people; that’s why we are here.’ That’s the best explanation. It’s oppression. It happens to the most vulnerable people.”
“The most vulnerable people.” The elderly women have no one to take care of them, the disabled or deformed have no one to defend them and the rest are repressed by those who perceive their power being taken away. Sound familiar?
“It’s a visual way of representing something that happens in real life.”
It gets worse. Since so many people either believe in witchcraft or use it as a convenient scapegoat for real problems, Nyoni says some of these witch camps have become tourist attractions.
Will I Am Not a Witch change things in Zambia? Perhaps that’s not the real purpose of the film. Nyobi says Zambian society is matriarchal and it’s accepted that women work, often in jobs that other countries and cultures deem male only.
“So I always get these questions at home (in Wales) about being a woman director, but never in Zambia, because all the directors I know there are women."
Perhaps there’s a reason why the windows we look at others through are also reflective.