Our November film picks from around the world
I Am Not a Witch
(98 minutes) Directed and written by Rungano Nyoni
A woman is carrying a plastic barrel of water on her head and trips. She looks up, sees a girl aged nine or ten looking back at her, gets up, and runs away. Later, at a police post, she accuses the girl of being a witch. An old man joins in and, although he has two arms, he claims she made one arm fall off. Jets of his blood spray all over the earth.
It’s arrant nonsense, yet the silent girl is expelled to a witches’ camp of mostly old women who are tethered to long ribbons to limit their movement – and stop them flying away. When they aren’t labouring in fields and quarries, they paint their faces and play-act for visiting tourists. They call the new arrival Shula, and with her muteness and big impassive eyes, she pulls in payments for casting spells. She even gets on television, when a grasping local official promotes hens’ eggs that have her blessing.
Shot in Zambia, the film is visually impressive, with a good central performance and amusing supporting cameos. Director Nyoni, who was brought up in Wales from the age of nine after her parents migrated from Zambia, stayed in a witches’ camp to research her debut film. Its satirical, feminist intent is clear, and she tells the story with vision and pizzazz, though why things happen as they do, and what people are thinking, isn’t always clear.
(81 minutes) Directed and co-written by Joshua Z Weinstein
Menashe is an ultra-orthodox, working-class Jew in Brooklyn Park, New York. He’s not great at his menial job – portering, filling shelves, delivering groceries. He’s often late, and he’s careless. Loading a delivery van, he doesn’t properly secure the back doors, so that, as he turns the street corner, boxes fly across the floor and onto the road. But, it’s a small enclosed community and his boss knows his circumstances.
His wife has just died, and he has a young son, Rieven. He’s observant, but his problem is that his brother-in-law, Eizik, seems not to like him at all, and is zealous. According to the Talmud, a good man must have a good wife, a good home and nice dishes. He hasn’t any of them. Eizik insists that the boy, Rieven, must come and live with his family; Menashe asks the rabbi for an exception to the rule so that he can keep his son.
Weinstein, previously a documentary director, doesn’t varnish things. His actors are non-professional actors, New York Hasidim, their language is Yiddish and the story is loosely based on the real-life Menashe’s experience. Neither Weinstein, nor co-writer Musa Syeed are Hasidic, and there’s a wide resonance in the central theme of living by rules, by an ancient text, in a shifting world. It is though, first of all, a vivid, humane film about a bumbler, his values and circumstances, his relationships and community. Honest, down-to-earth and believable.