Thursday, July 12, 2018

"I Am Not a Witch" and "In the Fade"

Novelty is something that I like to see in films, and considering how many I watch every year, it's rare to find something truly new. And so, even though there's a lot that feels slapdash and half-baked in "I am Not a Witch," the feature debut of director Rungano Nyoni, I appreciate it because it introduces something wholly novel to the cinematic vocabulary.

Maggie Mulubwa stars as Shula, an eight year-old orphan who is accused of witchcraft. In Zambia, where our story takes place, witches are exiled to isolated colonies where they are exploited as cheap labor and tethered to the ground with long white ribbons on giant spools, so they will not fly away. Shula is told that if she cuts her ribbon, she'll turn into a goat, so she elects to stay with the witches. Soon she's also taken under the wing of a comically corrupt government official, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri), who takes her to various jobs requiring the special powers of a witch. His wife Charity (Nancy Murilo), who also turns out to be a witch, promises Shula she will be fine if she does as she's told.

The witches with their white ribbons trailing after them and fluttering in the wind are wonderfully distinct from every other depiction of witches that I've ever seen, and make for an immediately evocative, culturally specific metaphor for the wider oppression and exploitation of Zambian women. Shula's adventures are highly satirical, and some are very funny, like her appearance on a local talk show. Others, however, are distressing or intensely uncomfortable to watch. At one point, a tourist sightseeing at the witches' camp intrudes on Shula during one of her rough patches. The woman seems sympathetic to Shula, but only long enough to take a picture.

There are parts of "I am Not a Witch" that feel incomplete or very roughly realized. The whole film is barely 90 minutes and easily could have used another twenty to help fill in some of the gaps. However, what we do see is fascinating, and comes with a very clear, critical point of view. Though the anchoring ribbons are the director's invention, there are real camps for accused witches in Zambia much like Shula's. More importantly, the attitudes we see toward witchcraft and the country's increasing westernization come across as very genuine, and it make the film's commentary all the more sobering.

Now over to Germany, where a new film by director Fatih Akin, "In the Fade," has been making some waves. Some of this is due to its subject matter, confronting the plight of recent immigrants. However, most of the acclaim is directly due to the excellent performance of Diane Kruger, who stars as Katja, a German woman who loses her Kurdish husband and their young son in a horrific bombing that appears to be racially motivated. The film is split into three parts, the first covering the bombing, the second covering the resulting trial, and the final part covering the further aftermath.

If it weren't for Kruger's involvement, the film would be a pretty pedestrian crime thriller. The social commentary is a touch too obvious and the other performances are mostly forgettable stuff. The second segment with the trial is especially humdrum, playing up predictable melodrama and spending entirely too long on familiar courtroom theatrics. The ending feels too calculated, designed to be controversial without really having the guts to be confrontational about its messages. It doesn't help that many characters, despite a few token skeletons in their closets, come across as far too idealized and contrived to be genuine.

Thank goodness for Diane Kruger then, who mostly manages to keep the whole film watchable and is frequently compelling and relatable. It's impossible not to feel for her as she processes her grief and tries to keep her emotions in check during the gruelling trial. The film is better the more it allows her to be active, which is why the last third of the film is easily the most successful. "In the Fade" would have been much better if it had expanded that final segment, with the earlier material limited to flashbacks. As is, the movie is a decent vehicle for Kruger, but it could have been much better.


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