Even if writer-director Rungano Nyoni’s film were a lesser achievement — less unsettlingly complicated, less bitterly funny, less bluntly sad — it would still have the witch truck, one of the great cinematic images of this or any other year. The witch truck is an old orange flatbed, purchased by the rotund and rotten government operative Mr. Banda for the transport of his private coven of witches, a group of mostly older women unlucky enough to have been accused and convicted of supernatural shenanigans by their fellow Zambians, to and from their various work details. Said flatbed is festooned with tall poles set at odd angles, like the spines of some mechanized porcupine, and set atop every pole is an oversized spool of white ribbon — a witch tether. The ends of the tethers are attached to the witches’ garments — to keep them from flying, don’t you know. (They’re more than strong enough for the job, because if you cut your ribbon, you turn into a goat.) These “civil witches” work “in cooperation with the government” to promote tourism and do field work, and into this sun-baked nightmare comes a quiet little girl who eventually gets dubbed Shula. And at least at first, a tethered life amid the friendly matrons of the coven seems vastly preferable to the unprotected wanderings of a goat. Writer-director Nyoni takes an unhurried approach to the proceedings, savoring every strange horror and awkward situation. It’s a remarkably assured debut, one that knows its strengths and plays to them, right up to the witch truck’s final, haunting appearance at the film’s conclusion. (2017) — Matthew Lickona
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