Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut I Am Not A Witch is not about magic. While watching the film, I felt a mysterious force binding me to its protagonist and her story but I couldn’t understand why. For days to come, I would ponder and try to decipher why this film had shaken me so. After rewatching it, I absorbed more and slowly the picture became clearer. I Am Not A Witch is not about magic. It’s a powerful portrayal of womanhood in the Me Too era. Set to Vivaldi’s Four Seasons symphony, it untangles the social perception of womanhood on screen for everyone to see and, hopefully, understand. And for me, it was the perfect parable, reflecting my struggle as a young woman attempting to decide who she is in today’s world.
The film tells the story of Shula, a young child who is accused of being a witch in an African village where witches are put on display for tourists. Clothed in blue garments and white make-up, the witches are lined up as a tour guide explains that to control the witches, they are tethered to spools of white ribbon whose free ends are attached to their backs; they cannot fly. Additionally, witches get scars on their foreheads which heal “like a tattoo.” Three physical elements identify a witch as such: blue garbs, facial scars and white make-up, and most importantly, the white ribbon tied to their back. Witches are marked and, therefore, cast as pariahs in the social context. When Shula is declared a witch by locals, she is questioned by the police to verify the accusation. What follows is a tragicomic segment where witnesses spew their reports to prove Shula is a witch. A woman describes her as “friendless” with no relatives. A man recounts how Shula cut off his arm with an axe, only to reveal it was only a dream he had. Later, a villager spots Shula and shouts “You’re the witch who ate all my relatives!” As a child who is lost and confused, Shula stays silent, neither confirming nor denying the accusations. She is then sent to witch camp where she gets her own ribbon. At first, I am baffled by Shula’s inaction. Why doesn’t she defend herself? After some thought, I realize that I too often opt for silence during heated debates involving my behavior. I lack energy and gumption to explain myself; at times it’s because, like Shula, I myself don’t really know how to explain my own thoughts, but at others, like many women, I don’t want to upset anyone; it’s a fear-borne silence. A silence I select to avoid potential conflict arising from a disapproving relative or a conservative bystander. A silence endemic to every woman who is not strong enough to look others in the eye and speak her mind because the dialogue can spiral into name-calling, slut-shaming, and inevitably, heart-breaking. So we don’t speak and they write our story for us, for me, for Shula.
During the initiation ceremony, Shula is locked in a closet and given an ultimatum: to keep the ribbon and stay a witch or cut the ribbon and turn into a goat. By sunrise, the locals knock on the door and ask, “Is there a witch in there?” Shula utters her first words in the film in response: “Yes there’s a witch in here.” At this point, it becomes clear that being a witch has nothing to do with evil forces or the paranormal; being a witch is a choice, it means accepting the role that society boxes you in. Out of ignorance, or fear, or innocence, Shula chooses “witch” over “goat” and agrees on society’s perception of who she is. Similarly, every day all around the world, women accept society’s terms and conditions on what to say or how to behave out of ignorance, fear, or innocence because to rebel or stand their ground would deem them “goats” – outsiders who are discriminated against because they are not playing the roles they’re supposed to play; they get fired or blocked or crucified or ostracized simply because their version of “woman” is not the same one accepted by society. And so we settle on being witches; born and raised and tamed in a society that allows what it, and only it, deems appropriate and decent and “woman”.
Instead of staying in witch camp and spending hours doing menial field work, Shula’s taken in by a government official, Mr. Banda, to pick out thieves among potential suspects and prophesize rain during droughts. Shula rarely speaks yet is continuously spoken of. Mr. Banda repeatedly refers to her as “[his] little witch” and “government property.” The lexicon used illustrates Shula as a reference, never the reference point. To villagers and thieves, she’s a witch. To Mr. Banda, she’s property. Shula never leads but is led to TV interviews and police lineups. Mr. Banda shows her off on a TV show while advertising “Shula eggs” as a new farm product. He arranges the suspects and asks her to identify the thief among them. Shula is used by others as a means to various ends, none of which benefit her or are even chosen by her. The film’s name is deceptive because Shula never says “I am not a witch” for she never gets the chance to explain or explore herself; this is not her story but a story about her. Her real story begins with one word: “No.” When she locks Mr. Banda out of his truck and refuses to open the door for him, she repeats, “No.” This incident marks her first, and only, act of volition in the entire film. Embellished with the canonical No that echoed through endless stories from victims of sexual assault in the Me Too uprising, Shula’s story finally begins.
Later, Mr. Banda drops off Shula at his house where his wife is to take care of her. Shula finds a spool of white ribbon in the wife’s bedroom and exclaims “You have one as well?” The following monologue takes place.
“I used to be like you when I was a kid…They said I couldn’t go anywhere,
they said I couldn’t cut the ribbon or do anything. They said if I cut the ribbon, I’d turn into a goat. Now, I didn’t turn into a goat. And do you know why? Respectability…Respect through marriage. Do you know how I became this way? Because I did everything I was told…I did it all without question.”
Even though no longer attached to the spool, the wife becomes attached to something else: a ring. The “respect through marriage” she so proudly boasts of is nothing but another social scheme to objectify her as a mindless reference that does “it all without question.” The “respectability” which comes with a cost, the cost of hiding her identity as a woman, is only skin-deep; she now walks stripped of her ribbon, but it still stays with her, silently spooled around a ring.
Not unlike the Jews whose very own star of David was used against them as a sign of public shame during the Holocaust, the witches’ womanhood, or more accurately, society’s perception and institution of what is or isn’t “woman”, is personified as white ribbons coiled around spools. It too is used against them, to shame and limit them. These spools become part of the witches’ mandated identity, they cannot escape it because it is part of who they have become, yet they learn to be ashamed of it through society’s manmade mongering. Afterwards, the wife goes out and her spool, hidden under a tarp, remains in her shopping cart. She is encircled by strangers who yell “Come see the witch…we know them” then uncover and expose her spool. Despite the obvious association one can make between the ribbon and past actions that haunt or trouble us, I found myself seeing more than shame in this scene. I saw my identity, tarred and taunted. This white ribbon, it’s mine but it belongs not on a spool but on walls and in streets and out loud. My white ribbon is part of me as it is part of every “witch” but it is not to control or tether us – it is to empower and embolden us. The spool merely represents what society spawns about me; similar to the wife’s, mine is also concealed, because I don’t want to confront others and change their minds about who I am; it’s a task I am not up to. Not yet. However, when my white ribbon unfurls, telling tales I probably don’t want to revisit, they will be my tales and only mine. I may not be ready to uncoil my ribbon and tell my story as I want to tell it yet, but I know it doesn’t belong on a spool manufactured by society.
Minutes before her death, Shula admits, “I should’ve chosen to be a goat. A goat is better.” I understand her words and they deeply resonate with me. I look back on where I am and how I got here. I shouldn’t have accepted their spool, even if it meant becoming an outsider. But, more importantly, I don’t think I should have to face an ultimatum between social acceptance and ostracism when it comes to my identity. Should I? I reconsider and argue that those ultimatums are what make us who we are, those choices are what free us. I’m tied and I long to be untied and I’m afraid of what being untied means. When Shula or the wife anger Mr. Banda, he threatens, “I’ll toss you back to where you belong” reminding them of the witch camp. Will I, too, go to witch camp if I cut my ribbon? Will my family members click their tongues and cast disapproving looks if I come out as who I am? Will my friends retreat from the person they thought they knew because she no longer fits in their version of “woman”? What about my neighbors, my colleagues, my coworkers? Will they “toss” me into their list of blocked contacts? I can’t know but I have a crippling feeling of anxiety that always stops me at the last minute; I drop the scissors, I don’t cut my ribbon.
I am tired of everyone’s opinions and standards lurking around every corner. I am tired of slut shaming, pro-life, conservative misogynists who rant about what women should be and never think about who women want and choose to be. I am tired of their imposing comments on what a woman should wear or say or look like. I am tired of their guidelines, their recommendations, their implicit instructions about what women should or shouldn’t do. When to get married (before bars and arranged dates become your best friends), when to be home (before dark or too dark or too drunk), when to say what you think you saw your boss do (not now), and when to come out (never). I look at my white ribbon and I know it belongs to me. But I no longer want it following me around like a ghost with whom I have unfinished business. I want to completely unspool it and make a dress out of it, a dress I can wear comfortably and proudly. The villagers can keep their spool but the ribbon, my ribbon, will accompany me always and I don’t want to hide it. I don’t want to hide me.