To All The Witches They Could Not Burn

“As long as women are denied the priesthood, we will try to make our own rituals at our own kitchen altars and we will sew our own magical capes at our own sewing machines.” – Erica Jong, Witches, 1981

In the hyper testosterone fuelled Trump age, arguably, one of the most poignant stories to come out of 2018 is from newcomer director, Rungano Nyoni who delivers a narrative fuelled tale, I Am Not A Witch (2017) which bursts and leaps from the screen as it follows the mysticism and misfortune of a nine-year-old girl capriciously accused of being a witch. Witch (n.) Old English “female magician, sorceress” – the primary example of the feared and maligned woman. Witches and witchcraft have been a quagmire of myth, misinformation and Halloween apparatus for centuries. A women’s body is both a place of resistance and exploitation. It is in this fractious space that Nyobni’s image of the woman as the eternally damned witch is conjured. The form of the film allows the spectator to possess the real world, to capture the appearance of a female divinity within a patriarchal culture.

Earlier this month, the 2019 Golden Globes nominations were announced—and, yet again, the directing category is 100% male. Hollywood, the boy’s club behemoth continues to profit off its assembly line of patriarchal tropes. Finding films with originality, energy and ambition is increasingly difficult against money spinning blockbusters and the relentless Disney-fication of our childhoods. According to The Numbers, Walt Disney has the lion’s market share with 26% of all movie distribution in 2018, followed by the Warner Bros with 16,5%. The gulf between independent film and blockbuster bombs continues to widen. The top selling worldwide blockbuster of the year was Avengers: Infinity War (2018), with China the largest contributing territory.

Maggie Mulubwa as Shula

Zambian born, Welsh raised Director Rungano Nyoni offers us a refreshing break from the action fuelled sequel with a candid take on the ongoing appropriation and exploitation of the female goddess through the metaphor of the witch tether. When eight-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) turns up abandoned and unannounced in a rural Zambian village, the locals are leery and distrustful. A minor incident escalates to a full-blown witch trial, where she is found guilty and sentenced to life on a state-run witch camp. There, she is tethered like an animal to a long white ribbon and told that if she ever tries to run away, she will be transformed into a goat. The ends of the tethers are attached to the witches’ garments — to keep them as prisoners and prevent them from flying away.

The film opens with a strangely Kubrick inspired magical scene that positions the spectator as darkly voyeuristic. Nyoni exploits the possibilities of photographic realism with dramatic illusion by showing us the “witch camp” in modern Zambia. David Gallego provocative cinematography captures the tragedy, absurdity and comic nature of this surrealist story with deadpan humour and thematic coherence. It’s a story bound to leave some audiences baffled and downright uncomfortable in a climate of the #metoo movement. These are the dark comedies that we need to bring sobriety to thousands of years of patriarchy.

Director, Rungano Nyoni

I Am Not A Witch explores the vilification of the female witch possessed with evil magic powers, which is as prevalent in Africa as it was in Europe. Witchcraft was a crime in Europe during the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Witches were generally defined as people who had made a pact with Satan in exchange for mystical powers to commit evil acts. It was believed that witches engaged in lurid, sexual acts and killed and maimed children and pregnant women. They were also believed to make men impotent, by stealing their genitals. Most witch hunts continue to revolve around women’s sexuality, male impotence, and infanticide.

In a pivotal early moment in fugitive Roman Polanski’s  1968’s Rosemary’s Baby, Rosemary Woodhouse (Mia Farrow) is raped and impregnated by Satan as a coven of chanting witches looms over her. She, of course waking up with scratches all over her body, prefers to think this is all a feverish dream. It is these horrifying stereotypes, feminist overtones, and inescapable witch like demons embedded in this cult film which coalesce to create a horrifying portrait of marital — and societal — misogyny. Without any effort Rosemary’s body becomes a metaphor for the Patriarchy or Capitalism’s use and abuse of the natural utilities of the female body.

Mia Farrow as a wide-eyed Rosemary

Nyoni’s female gaze delivers a psychological punch by giving us permission to laugh at ourselves, at the absurdity of the patriarchal world we live in, at the tragedy of women trying to regain control of their lives and bodies. The history of withcraft is inextricably tied to the lingering vestige of a primeval religion versus the remarkable goddess, or woman as natural healer. Rungano Nyoni’s strength of montage offers us a chance to identify these stereotypes and mythologies and arrive at a certain phenomenal truth about the inner strength and the power of women in the world today. Women have a history of being unseen, veiled, secreted, buried, vilified and denigrated, whether they are written out of history or included as witches  possessed by devils out to destroy mankind.

So where does this leave us today? In 1973 Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English published Witches, Midwives, and Nurses: A History of Women’s Health. Written in “a blaze of anger and indignation,” Ehrenreich and English argued that it was midwives and healers who were most accused of witchcraft, and that witch hunts were part of dismissing and criminalizing women’s knowledge in order to allow state-approved male doctors to take over medical care. “Our ignorance” of our own bodies, they argued, “is enforced.” As historian Carol Karlsen puts it, “the story of witchcraft is primarily the story of women.” Labelling a powerful woman a witch, such as the vitriol aimed at Julia Gilliard, Hannah Gadsby and Hilary Clinton is a the fastest way to conjure up the evil image of a dried up, nasty woman.

According to Dr Charlotte-Rose Millar author of Witchcraft, the Devil and Emotions in Early Modern England (Routledge, 2017) it “seems that we now have two different types of modern witches: those still persecuted for crimes they didn’t commit and those who take on the mantle for self-empowerment.” Nyoni gracefully captures the conflict between the magic of this hybridity and the awful realities of state power, reminiscent of Nietzsche’s view on ‘tragic realism’. Our tragic reality is that men want women to stay in the primary social roles of housewife and child bearer. Pregnant and bare foot in the kitchen, without a voice, a paycheck or a point of view. A movie like I Am Not A Witch is a critical part of a much needed communal misogynistic revisionism, a corrective to our collective amnesia of the beauty and healing power inherent in women. The point is, as Eric Jong says, female power cannot be suppressed; it can only be driven
underground.

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