Born in Zambia, raised in Wales and now living in Lisbon, British writer-director Rungano Nyoni began her career making a series of award-winning shorts, including the BAFTA-nominated Mwansa The Great (2011) and Listen (2014). She now delivers her striking feature debut, I Am Not A Witch, which returns her to Zambia for a satirical story about a young girl who is accused of being a witch and expelled to a “witch camp”, where she is led to believe she is cursed.
ASFF: How difficult was it to get I Am Not A Witch off the ground?
RN: I was told that it’s very difficult to make a film set in Africa, in the local language, with a non-professional cast. I just know a lot of films like this aren’t really made.
ASFF: Although this is set in Zambia, you researched the real notion of “witch camps” in Ghana. Why?
RN: Well, they’re older and more organised, these witch camps in Ghana. They’re the oldest in the world I think, about 200 years old. I wanted to see what an organised witch camp looked like. They feature throughout parts of Africa, including Zambia. In Zambia, it’s a bit more informal. It just depends on the region and the chief, but Ghana seemed to be a systematic, organised structure. I was curious to see what it looked like, and how the women lived together in this camp. I lived there for about three weeks there.
ASFF: Were they very welcoming?
RN: Yes, they were very nice. They left us to it. We were like, “Don’t help us, we’re going to do everything!” We wanted to see what it was like to live as they do. But we learnt a lot. It was me and my husband – he was there to support me and take photos and videos, and then talk through ideas we had. It was maybe a Method directing way to see how people lived but it was a complete disaster! We tried cooking local things but it didn’t work! They had to help us light a fire, fetch water.
ASFF: Are these accusations of witchcraft confined to rural areas in Africa?
RN: Even in cities you find it. You find the same beliefs and people accept it. It’s against the law in most places in Africa to accuse people of witchcraft, but they accept it. You can even call the police if you suspect someone of being a witch, which I find bizarre.
ASFF: Can you speak about the tone of the film?
RN: I based it around a Zambian fairytale, which are very casual, very absurd. Tonally, they shift a lot. They’re violent, funny and use a lot of music. I wanted to capture that and see if I could use it in a film format.
ASFF: How was it working with a non-professional cast?
RN: For me, the work comes in the casting. The women, we took a while to cast and we found them. We didn’t have any time for rehearsal, so they just got stuck in – they warm up quite quickly. I wanted women from all tribes, just to be inclusive, but it becomes complicated because you can’t communicate with some people. Things would get lost in translation, but everyone got the hang of it.
I Am Not A Witch opens on 20 October. For more details, visit: www.curzonartificialeye.com
1. Still from I Am Not A Witch.