I Am Not a Witch director Rungano Nyoni: ‘The chief Whatsapped his people to find our star’

26 May 2017

Digital Content

At the heart of I Am Not a Witch, a Zambian-set highlight of this year’s Cannes Festival, is an eminently relatable dilemma: should you remain living as witch in a travelling camp for tourists? Or liberate yourself, and thus risk being magically transformed into a goat as punishment? Who hasn’t wrestled with that one at some point or another? “That’s a choice I feel like I, as a woman, make all the time,” says Rungano Nyoni, the film’s Zambian-born, Cardiff-raised director. She laughs. “Shall I become a goat? Or shall I become a woman and live with all the injustices and difficulties that come with it?”

 I am not a witch

In Nyoni’s conversation, as in the society she depicts on film, metaphor and literal truth can sometimes become entwined. It is one of the qualities that makes her debut feature, a satire about a nine-year-old girl who is accused of witchcraft, so beguiling. The selection of I Am Not a Witch for the festival’s directors fortnight is a particular achievement for a first-time feature director, since this section is a breeding ground for future auteurs. It is the afternoon before she is due to fly out to France, though, and Nyoni says she is still struggling to relax into her success: “I’m more nervous than anything … it’s waiting to see it in front of an audience. That either reassures you or makes you even more nervous, so I think that’s when I’ll know.”

First time feature from Welsh-Zambian director Rungano Nyoni is a charming study of an orphan whose supposed magic powers are a goldmine for venal officials.

The initial inspiration for Nyoni’s screenplay took place a long way from both the Côte d’Azur and the relaxed, Cardiff coffee shop we meet in. It was one summer when she was staying with family in Zambia, as she explains: “My neighbour came over, screaming, saying her grandmother was a witch and had turned into a snake. My grandmother did a major eye roll. She was like, ‘Oh God, she just wants to get home and she can’t afford the bus fare. It’s stupid.’ But the neighbour really seemed to believe it.”

Does Nyoni believe it? Both the director and her film remain agnostic on the subject of witchcraft which, she says, is beside the point anyway. “It’s not the belief that I’m against, or that I question, because spooky things happen all the time in Zambia. It’s that the witch accusations, are always aimed at older women or children. This is the bit I find absurd.”

Nyoni further researched her script by visiting one of Ghana’s real-life “witch camps”, quasi-governmental settlements that are part-sanctuary, part-prison and part-tourist attraction. She lived alongside the women there and a version of the camp became a setting for the film, but Nyoni substituted the real details of camp life for more cinematic ones of her own invention. In the film, for instance, a giant bobbin of white ribbon is attached to the waist of the accused witches, including nine-year-old Shula, and wound in or out to control their movements. Equally visually striking are the film’s landscapes, great swathes of ash-grey, fire-fallow farmland, chosen, says Nyoni, “to reflect this idea of exploitation.”

Most impressive, though, are the touching, often very funny performances Nyoni has elicited from her non-professional cast. “My tribe is Bemba, but I didn’t want it to just be a Bemba monopoly, so when I did the casting I wanted to get different people from all different parts.” Her actors were then encouraged to improvise dialogue in English, Bemba, Nyanja and Tonga, only two of which Nyoni speaks fluently. “It makes it more tricky, I realise that now.”

Looking for the right child to play Shula, was even more challenging, and involved auditioning nearly 1,000 children. “I think, if you cast right, kids are the best to work with because they don’t think about it too much. That’s why the thousand kids.” Eventually Nyoni’s location manager, who also happens to be her husband, reminded her of a photograph he’d taken of an interesting-looking girl in the north of the country. “From the picture, we contacted the chief, WhatsApped him a picture; he sent a WhatsApp to all his people and they covered, like, thousands of square kilometres to find her.” Once found, Maggie Mulubwa agreed to be in the film and, accompanied by an aunt, travelled 12 hours by car to join the shoot.

Maggie has since been justly awarded for both her courage and her nascent star quality; Nyoni set up a GoFundMe page to pay for her education and Film4 and the BFI have both pledged support. She will also join I Am Not a Witch’s cast and crew for the film’s Cannes premiere. “We only found out today and I’m so chuffed.” Read the full article on The Guardian here.