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Interview: Fairy tale feature film about African witch camps

DAZZLING DEBUT: Rungano Nyoni’s film, ‘I Am Not a Witch’, is not supposed to portray reality

FEATURED AS part of the BFI London Film Festival, movie 'I Am Not a Witch', set in southern Africa, has made a resounding impression on London film buffs and Zambian audiences alike.

Jerome Conway speaks with the film's director Rungano Nyoni:

Q: Why was this a story you wanted to tell as your first feature?

A: When I started writing the story, I wasn’t really thinking whether it was going to be my first feature. I tend to be quite singular with my interests, and at the time it was the only story I was keen on exploring.

Q: What was the origin of this project?

A: I’ve been working on the script for a few years – so it’s difficult to pinpoint where the idea originated from.


DIRECT APPROACH: I Am Not a Witch director Rungano Nyoni

On one of my earlier drafts my script consultant, Giles, told me my story reminded him of this French fairy tale called Mr. Seguins Goat. It is a beautiful tale that talks about a small goat tied to a rope on a farm and who longs to run away to the mountains. It deals with themes of freedom and the price of gaining freedom. It became a huge inspiration to me while I wrote by subsequent drafts.

Q: How did you go about casting your young actress Maggie?

Q: It was by pure chance. My husband, Gabriel, found Maggie when we were scouting for locations during pre-production. At the time we were looking to set the film on a peninsular in north Zambia. He took a couple of pictures of her because he thought she reminded him of the character in my script. When I saw those pictures, I agreed that she was Shula.

When we came back to Zambia for pre-production a couple of months later I had to change the setting to Lusaka. We auditioned 900 kids in Lusaka and I wasn’t that convinced by any of them. Gabriel reminded me of the picture of the little girl he had taken. I was very sceptical, but Tobi- as (unit manager) reassured me he would find her. He contacted the local chief and WhatsApped him a picture of Maggie. Based only on a picture, he sent out his people and asked them to scour an area that spans more than 50,000 km2 to find this little girl. They eventually tracked her down and she was brought to the chief who sent her to Lusaka. I auditioned her with three other kids I had shortlisted. I couldn’t keep my eyes off her.


A scene from I Am Not a Witch

Q: You studied acting at Central St. Martins before directing. Did that help you prepare your actors – even the non-professional ones?

A: My time there really helped me shape my directing, writing and the way I work with actors. We learn a lot of devising work there. My approach to actors – especially non-professional ones – is to give them freedom to make their own choices. I don’t tell them what to do or say and they don’t get a copy of the script. They just learn about the scenario. It is sort of improvisation and improvisation is great to get natural performances, but it can be unfocused. So I work a lot with the actors to give their choices more shape and make their actions deliberate. I use this approach with everyone, including Maggie.

Q: Most of the African filmmaking we usually see in international festivals would be more earnest, yet you have created a satire with moments of humour. Is that reflective of your overall sensibility as a director, or just for this particular story you were telling?

A: What we see in international film festivals is probably more a reflection of the type of films that attract large financing than anything else. There can be a risk-averse tendency to finance films that replicate something that’s been seen before. You have to convince funders to invest in a type of humour they might find uncomfortable or may be unfamiliar with.


A scene from I Am Not a Witch

Thank God I had huge support to do that. Local productions or independently-financed film coming from Africa tend to be more absurd and more experimental. They can be genre-less – which I love.

Q: Does this kind of witch camp exist in Zambia, or in Africa? How far is your film from the reality in Zambia or Africa?

A: Witch camps do exist in Zambia and in Africa in different forms. Witch beliefs prevail in Zambia and Africa and manifest themselves in different forms – but I Am Not a Witch is a fairy tale. It isn’t meant to portray reality in any way. I would be doing those women in the camp a disservice if I implied otherwise.

Q: What were the challenges of shooting in Zambia, and what was wonderful about it?

A: The pitfalls for any production from abroad that comes to work in Zambia is trying to assimilate whatever works in their country.

You really have to have an open mind and a different approach when you shoot here to get the most out of it. The Zambian film infrastructure is in its early development.

WATCH THE TRAILER FOR I AM NOT A WITCH, BELOW (credit: YouTube/Curzon Artificial Eye)

The great thing is that there is so much enthusiasm. Lack of experience never scares me if there is drive and willingness to learn. Our casting co-ordinator, for example, had zero experience in casting – she was a hotel manager. It took me half a day to explain her role and she took to it very quickly.

Q: Did it feel like a big step up making your first feature or did it just feel like a continuation of the way you had been working in shorts?

A: It was a huge step. I thought it would be like making a short film, but longer – but it’s just not the case at all. You have to have an incredible amount of stamina to see it though to the end.

All the things that I had learned through making shorts were either a benefit or a hindrance when it came to making my first feature.

I Am Not a Witch is showing at Curzon Cinemas now.

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