The Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes this year was enlivened by the fortuitous programming of a number of films about children channeling the bounding energy of their young protagonists, whether Sean Baker’s precocious “hidden homeless” scampering around cheap motels in Orlando in The Florida Project, Jonas Carpignano’s bracing faux-adults spitting slang and smoking cigs in a Romani community in Siciliy in A Ciambra, or the young Joan of Arc, singing and dancing in Bruno Dumont’s Jeannette.
More passive than all these kids so willing to act out in difficult circumstances is Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), the young Zambian girl accused of witchcraft in Zambia-born, Wales-based director Rungano Nyoni’s bold debut feature, I Am Not a Witch. In fact, this young girl has no name and is nearly unable to speak up for herself. In the film’s opening scenes, she is accused of being a witch and, failing to deny it, is tied to a long ribbon (to prevent her from flying away, of course) and sent to a witch camp full of aging women isolated, imprisoned, and forced to work in the countryside in a kind of witch chain gang. This forced community of ostracized women are the ones that bless the sad young girl with a name, giving her advice on how to survive while branded as an outcast.
Yet despite what sounds like a grim procession, Nyoni presents this disturbing sequence of events with a wry, unexpected sense of humor, immediately acknowledging the laughable absurdity surrounding such cultural fear of women. Shula is soon skirted away from the witch camp by a local government man, Mr. Banda (Henry B.J. Phiri, absolutely hilarious in his transparent opportunism), to be used as his “own little witch” to solve local disputes, such as being able to determine a guilty man among a dozen suspects (phoning a fellow witch for help, Shula is advised to pick “the dark one”) or bring rain to a parched land. Part folk tale combining different aspects of Zambian beliefs, part fairy tale lent graphic surreal strokes by the iconographic cinematography, and part satire of a society (Mr. Banda takes Shula on a TV talk show to proclaim her powers and serve as a product endorsement, and we learn his wife is an ex-witch kept in check by material luxury), Nyoni has made an all together unique film about the oppression and exploitation of women in her home country that is brazenly fresh, funny, and angry.
NOTEBOOK: Based on the great number of co-production company logos before the film—everything from Film 4 to Rotterdam’s Hubert Bals fund, and the Berlin and Locarno festivals—can you tell us a bit about how you got this, your first feature, made? Was it difficult to assemble the financing for such an audacious film?
RUNGANO NYONI: [Laughs] Everyone said to make a film in Britain first and then do a difficult Zambian film someday. But I can’t think of an idea just because I can get financing for it. I thought of the idea first, and then I deliberately wanted to get as much money from different territories as possible so that I could give it every chance to get financed. I got development funding from four difference sources, France, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Wales. They provided soft development money, soft because I thought that if I don’t get more, I’ll just use it to make the film. Once I got the script ready, it actually was relatively easy. Because I was prepared for the hard slog, I did everything in preparation to avoid it. So I made links to different funding agencies, different festivals, and this made it easier. Maybe to my own detriment, I tried to get as much money from as many people as possible, rather than just from one source. It was a headache for everyone! But I don’t see much money for African films on the international circuit, and I wanted to give it every chance of succeeding. Then the production finance came from the Berlin Film Festival, the World Cinema Fund, also the Hubert Bals fund, and then the BFI, Wales, the CNC—so many that I thought, if it doesn’t succeed it’s just my fault, I have no excuses.
NOTEBOOK: I was struck by the film’s cinematography, stripping the images down to spare but pointed iconography. Can you talk about your conception of the look of the film?
NYONI: Yeah, my cinematographer David Gallego, who did Embrace of the Serpent, we spoke about how I wanted something cinematic. You know, I learned cinema through doing. I never went to film school, I’m self-taught—so all the other films, in my shorts, I was still trying to learn the language of cinema. Here, I wanted to do something cinematic [laughs]. Something that you could take the volume down and watch, like you can do with the Coen brothers. It’s very simple, it’s very clear. That’s what I was going for, simple and clear for this fairy tale thing. This is what I wanted to replicate.
NOTEBOOK: It’s interesting you mention turning the volume off, because the film has several great musical sequences, some using more traditional African music, some using very contemporary pop which immediately tear us away from this sense of a fairy tale.
NYONI: It’s just a feeling—I didn’t have any rules about what songs I wanted to use. Estelle's “American Boy” was one of the few I knew before. I knew at the end it was going to be very dark—without giving too much away—very dark. Some might feel it’s too heavy, that I was trying to manipulate it too much, trying to make people feel something. So I wanted to have something to…not throw them off, but to not let them indulge so much. “American Boy” puts a tune in people’s head so that they forget for a moment that, “oh, this is happening!” That’s why I chose that.
NOTEBOOK: How did you find your non-professional actors?
NYONI: The women were tricky, because I was trying to get a mixture of different tribes rather than just one. We got them from the witch-belief capital of Zambia; I wanted to get people from there and we got about 15 women. We had a big crew looking for women—even my mother, at one point, working with casting relatives. The girl was the most difficult, we saw over 900 little girls before finding Maggie—just through chance of someone taking a photograph of her. It was all higgledy-piggledy. We had tons of people looking, telling them that if they see just anyone interesting, bring them in to audition.
NOTEBOOK: Where does the line between folklore and fantasy lay in your film?
NYONI: Gosh, that’s a killer question! The first thing I was aiming for was doing something that was just a fairy tale, and whatever I did to get there was the idea. I researched a lot of real witch accusations, witch camps, and then I exaggerated what was already there. I took the mythology from all these different sources, everything’s an amalgamation of research I did in different countries and the idea of fairy tales in cinema—it’s a whole bunch of different ideas, using my imagination. It’s a mixture, I don’t know where it begins and ends.
NOTEBOOK: Why approach this story as a fairy tale rather than as a realist depiction of what you researched?
NYONI: I wanted to make it a fairy tale because I found a really good Zambian way of saying the story, without making it about Zambia. I grew up on fairy tales. I’ve always wanted to do this, actually. In a way, I was trying to get away—perhaps as a first-time filmmaker this is a bit of a cliché—I was trying to get away from “the arc.” It’s always “the arc, arc, arc arc,” and I was trying to do something different. I was trying to do something that I grew up with, which is that my family used to tell me fairy tales and they were really particular. Fairy tales in general are very strange, but Zambian ones mix genres. They’re for kids, but they’re really violent, and they’re funny, and they mix magic realism. All of these things I wanted to take for my film. They are really musical. I was trying to do that.
NOTEBOOK: The film is indeed a surprising mixture of genres and tones. The one that jumped out most was the unexpected comedy, considering one of the major subjects of this film is the oppression of women. It’s a grim theme, yet this is a very funny, almost cheeky movie.
NYONI: For me, it was always important it was going to be absurd and funny and satirical. I want to engage people in something. I try to find ways to engage people, right? People don’t know—or know very little, because there’s not a lot of cinema—about African people, and I’m trying to find a way of engaging people without playing a pity card or making African porn, where people want to watch something and then feel guilty and then they go figure out Africa. I want to engage people, what people think, so that they can relate to those people in some way. And I thought humor was the best way for me. I want to get, in the end, to my feeling about the subject, something I want to talk about, something that I’m very angry about—but I want to do it through humor so that we can engage that distance.
NOTEBOOK: Did you have concerns that humor could potentially humanize the villains and the wrongs they perpetrate in a way that undercuts that anger?
NYONI: Yeah, because I want to do more shades than just bad guy, good guy. Even if one could say the subject is misogyny, I also didn’t want it to be men versus women. There’s lots of things here to balance, and sometimes you get them right and sometimes not. When talking about exploitation, humor is a very powerful tool for getting people to listen. It lingers in their minds. I don’t want people to consume something and forget it. I want people to be touched by it, and humor, for me, has a ripple effect.
NOTEBOOK: You mentioned being encouraged to not begin your feature film career with a Zambian film. Now that you’ve made one, would you like to continue shooting more stories in Zambia?
NYONI: Yeah! There really are only a few places I think I could make films, and that’s Wales, Zambia and London. They are the three places I know, they are my three homes for a very long time. I’ll take the ideas as they come. I’m not strategic about what I do, I’m not thinking, “Next I’ll do a horror film, then everyone will discover and love me and I’ll make $100 million.” I think you just have to do whatever’s in your mind.