What would you do if you discovered a girl kept on a leash?

If you’re troubled by that imaginary image, you’ll be ensnared as I was by  I Am Not a Witch, a film that most moviegoers overlooked in 2018. But you’ll also be enchanted and impressed by this feature from Zambian writer/director Rungano Nyoni.

(You can rent it for a couple of bucks on Amazon and other streaming platforms.)

In what some critics are calling “an absurdist comedy” (but is it absurd?), you’ll see not one but many Zambian women who, convicted — on hearsay, not evidence — of practicing witchcraft, have been sentenced to communal imprisonment in a camp, each one bound by a long white ribbon to a large spool. The ribbons are tethers, lines that will prevent them (we learn from a tour guide addressing wide-eyed tourists) from flying around over Zambia and casting curses down on the locals.

But that’s just a whimsical hook. The bright light that shines at the center of this movie is the mute 9-year-old orphan who, much to the dismay of the longtime spool-bound prisoners, is the latest to bear this cruel sentence.

Her name is Shula. Played by the radiant Maggie Mulubwa, Shula gives us no clues about her origin, unless her name is one of them: it means “uprooted,” and it’s likely that she comes to this town because she has survived some kind of trauma or abandonment elsewhere.

Photo: Film Movement

At the beginning, we see her making her way into a village, startling and upsetting a woman who is carrying water, which prompts a wildly unnecessary accusation that she must be a witch. The trial is a joke, with a local policewoman begrudgingly honoring local traditions and listening to others invent crazy stories about how they saw Shula flying overhead and disrupting them. (You may find yourself recalling the famous “Burn the Witch” scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail.)

Shula’s conviction makes no sense. It’s maddening. But then it gets worse in a way that makes all kinds of sense: Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri), a local who knows a good moneymaking ploy when he sees one, takes this convicted orphan on the road as an attraction. Shula, decorated in outrageous costumes, is forced to pick criminals out of lineups and even appear on a talk show, where a few in the audience dig for the truth only to be deftly deflected by Mr. Banda’s dismissals. All the while, she stays bound to a spool, and often finds herself jerked violently backward out of a conversation and dragged a long distance on her back.

Photo: Film Movement

Yes, the leashes that bind these women are imaginary. But they’re tied to real-world suffering: Nyoni prepared to make this movie by dwelling among “witches” kept in camps in Zambia and Ghana.

Is there anything here for American moviegoers? Or is this fictional Zambia — this strange world of wild costumes, bizarre traditions, and superstition — just an exotic spectacle?

Well, yes — let’s begin with aesthetics: This is a beautiful movie. I watched it on a laptop screen, and I was enthralled by the performances, the beauty of the faces, the rich colors of the cinematography (by David Gallego, who filmed Embrace of the Serpent), and the stirring musical score. I wish I’d seen it on a big screen.

But I was also gripped by a sense of urgency. Will we Western moviegoers see ourselves represented by the foreigners in the opening scene who visit the prisoners the way they’d visit an exhibit in a zoo, and who treat Zambia as an exotic tourist destination?

Photo: Film Movement

I’d argue that there’s a great deal for us to consider. You will find relevance here in your own ways, I’m sure. You might find that it’s not really fantasy — not much, anyway. You’ll remember the reality that many women in the world are still denied an education. You’ll remember that many — even those a short road trip from your home — are fleeing persecution and violence only to find greater violence and injustice here, in “the land of liberty and justice for all.”

Me, I laughed in bitter recognition at the darkly comic moments in Shula’s story of being exploited by her patriarchal culture — and, specifically, by a political con man. Women are exploited, abused, oppressed, and trafficked all over the world, and America has more in common with Zambia in this than our current administration would ever admit — especially in these days when a Republican-led Congress excuses — yea, enables — an unrepentant sexual predator in his relentless attacks against women.

Photo: Film Movement

And remember, there’s a young woman named Reality Winner held in solitary confinement for the crime of trying to warn the American people about efforts to corrupt our democracy: She told the truth, and Republicans sentenced her to prison for exposing their corruption. She’s still there, on a leash, branded as a witch, even after everything she sought to reveal was proven true. Liars go free while a young truth-tellers suffers, with even her Bible taken from her for punishment.

Am I off on a political tangent? Or am I responding to art exactly the way I should — by considering how it illuminates fundamental truths of the world around me, and by finding in this experience the motivation to do what I can about what’s in front of me? I can’t save Shula, and I’m unlikely to influence what’s happening in Zambia. But what can I do about those being branded here at home? What can I do about those criminals who cry “Witch hunt!” even as their crimes against humanity are exposed?

Despite the drastic differences between Shula’s experience and my life of white male American privilege, I find that the more I think about this movie the more I feel its call for me to make a difference where I am. This is not a fantasy. It’s not even a foreign film. It’s about here and now — you and me.