'I Am Not A Witch': Film explores plight of Zambians accused of witchcraft

Cannes, France (CNN)"When I die I will kill you," says an irked woman in one scene from "I Am Not a Witch."

This elderly lady, accused of witchcraft in Zambia, has reached her wits' end with a farmer who's forced her to work his fields. Tired and exploited, she vows to exercise her powers from beyond the grave -- and she's being quite literal.
The line sums up the absurd, paradoxical world of witchcraft. When you've been told you're a witch, forced to live as a witch, forced to act as a witch, you might eventually start believing you're a witch.
    Zambian-born, Welsh-raised director Rungano Nyoni has made the subject the focus of her debut feature film which screened this month at the Cannes Film Festival. A biting satire attacking the ignorance which provides oxygen for this hokum -- and the tragedy that can result from it -- the BAFTA nominee and Cinefondation alumni is not pulling her punches.
      But can this member of the diaspora change hearts and minds in Zambia?

      A month as a witch

      Accusing someone of witchcraft is illegal in Zambia. Under the country's Witchcraft Act the charge is punishable by up to one year's imprisonment, with or without hard labor. However, that doesn't mean accusations don't happen.
      In Nyoni's film we follow Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), a reticent 9-year-old accused after a woman drops a pail of water and turns around to find the child looking at her. Dragged to a police station, a man then claims the waif chopped off his arm with an ax. Conspicuously, the accuser still has both limbs. "She did it in a dream," he doubles back. Locals nod their heads and mutter in approval.
      Women accused of witchcraft seen in a camp in "I Am Not A Witch." Nyoni interviewed many women in Ghana and Zambia about their experiences, with some featuring in the film.
      Despite the flimsy charges, Shula finds herself in state custody and transported to a rural witch camp by unscrupulous police chief Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri). There she's left to live among a group of so-called witches, presided over by a witch doctor. Each is attached to a spool of white ribbon lest they fly away. Cut the ribbon and you'll be turned into a goat, Shula is warned.
      The ribbon, rich in symbolism, is a fictional touch from Nyoni, but many other elements are true to her research.