Rungano Nyoni, the writer and director behind stunning new film I Am Not a Witch, talks Zambian fairytales, feminist undertones, and finding her perfect protagonist
Rungano Nyoni arrived at the Cannes Film Festival unaware of the fact that she was the talk of the town. It was her first time there, but from the moment that cinephiles had read this year’s line-up, her debut feature film I Am Not A Witch was labeled unmissable: a captivating fable from a Zambian-born writer director who has cut her filmmaking teeth in Britain.
The film tells the tale of Shula, a nine-year-old girl in a Zambian village who becomes the unexpected subject of a witch trial. Unwilling to speak out in fear of being turned into a goat (a traditional punishment for lying about your curse), she’s sent to a witch camp that’s occupied by a clan of older apparent-sorceresses, each one of them tied down with ribbons to make sure they don’t fly away in the dead of night. We’re plunged into the centre of Shula’s ethereal life story, but the film is quietly rooted in the real subjugation of the African women who are falsely labelled as followers of the devil, as a means of removing them from their family. “I never thought about the film being related to women or misogyny,” Rungano tells me during our sit-down at the festival, when I ask her about the importance of feminist values in cinema. “I was trying to talk about the price of freedom, but then I realised [what the real story was]. I had caught up with it.”
Although it may seems strange to label a film with such an important cause at its heart a ‘fairytale’, I Am Not A Witch uses the darker, more complex fables of its director’s Zambian heritage as the inspiration for its storytelling style. “Zambian fairytales are quite different to European ones,” Rungano tells me. “They tend to change. They’re quite violent, sometimes they’re funny, then absurd – but they never follow a thorough narrative. They’re like stars: you see how they all join up afterwards.” There’s also the added serendipitous fact that her first name means ‘Fairytale’ in Shona, an indigenous language spoken in communities all around Zambia.
Rungano stumbled across her eponymous fairytale witch completely by chance. While looking for places to shoot the film, her location manager, who also happens to be her husband (“Keep it in the family!” she says), asked a young girl playing with her friends to step into a shot to judge its cinematic quality. From the moment that photo wound up in Rungano’s hands, she knew that the girl, Maggie Mulubwa, was the Shula she had been dreaming of.
But as the film relocated, Mulubwa was forgotten about and a casting call of thousands of girls took place. By the end, Rungano was convinced that she still hadn’t found the one – until someone reminded her of that girl. “The team set about finding her after that,” she tells me. “We didn’t have her name. Scouts started looking, and found her just from the picture.
“We brought her down and at first I thought, ‘Oh my god, this is so embarrassing! All that trouble and it might not work’. After about three days, though, I knew she was perfect.” She was right to take the risk; Mulubwa feels like a new breed of movie matriarch. Quiet and commanding, she’s the beating heart of the film.
As a film directed by a woman that addresses women’s issues, I Am Not A Witch seems somewhat isolated in a Cannes selection larrgely dominated by male directors. Rungano feels as though the lack of female filmmakers in this environment harks back even further than their representation on the Croisette, to the way they’re treated during education. “When I was at film school, there was always an imbalance [between] men and women. I always had some sort of drama that [the men] didn’t.” Rungano adopts the voice of a smug, male, laid-back filmmaker. “They would be like, ‘I don’t know why you find this all so difficult!’ and I’d just have to sigh. We always had different experiences.”
I suggest that her appearance in the Cannes line-up, a monumental achievement for any filmmaker, was like a middle finger to the menwho had doubted her. “It had to get to this point,” she says passionately. “Throughout this process, I was telling myself: ‘I have to get into Cannes, otherwise I never get my vengeance!’”
I wonder if her upbringing in Wales had managed to wiggle its way into the DNA of her Zambian, feminist fairytale. She laughs at the notion. “The Welsh and Zambian temperament is very similar,” she tells me, “It’s very much a ‘what you see is what you get’ situation – but no, if it has, it’s been done very subconsciously.” But she’s not willing to flat-out deny the cultural crossover quite yet. She smiles, and pauses for a second. “Maybe one day five years from now, I’ll look back on the film and say, ‘Oh! That’s from the time I was buying fish and chips in Cardiff! That’s that scene!’”
I Am Not A Witch will be released in the UK later this year.