Zambia-born, Cardiff-raised director Rungano Nyoni discusses her first feature I Am Not a Witch — which tackles patriarchal constraints on women in Zambia — and her own experiences with sexism in the film industry. The film is now available on VOD.
One of the most original and arresting films at this year’s Directors’ Fortnight in Cannes, I Am Not a Witch is the first feature by Zambia-born, Cardiff-raised director Rungano Nyoni. Set in modern-day Zambia, the film follows eight-year-old Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) as she is forced to stay in a witch camp, after being accused of witchcraft by the people of her village. Attached to a ribbon preventing any escape, she is held responsible for all blessings and ills in the community. This arrangement is set up by the men in power, who delegate all the work and all the blame they are responsible for to the female prisoners. Like in the films of Ousmane Sembene, this hypocrisy is both a source of humour and of horror.
Back in Cannes, I spoke with Nyoni about truth and fairytales, Zambian humour, and working as a female POC director.
Seventh Row (7R): How much of what we see in I Am Not a Witch is real? I’m referring to the witches, in particular.
Rungano Nyoni: I get asked that a lot, but I knew I would be. It is all based on reality, but most of the details about the witches are illustrations of what happens in real life — an amalgamation of all these ideas represented in different ways. For example, the ribbons that keep the witches from running or flying away are not a real thing, but I wanted a visual way to show something that happens in real life. The women are controlled through magic potions or, as in the witch camps in Ghana, through an invisible shrine that stops them from flying and from committing evil — a shrine that, conveniently, only a witch doctor can see. So to represent that in my film, I thought of the ribbons and the spools.
7R: How did you get the idea for the film?
Rungano Nyoni: I was working on it for quite a while. It started with women, family members that I knew and wrote about. They became characters. But it just didn’t fit… I was writing these little stories and I didn’t know how they were related. Then, I had someone else read it, and they said “No, no, no, this is what you’re trying to talk about!’
I then thought I could place my stories in a witch camp, that it would be saying the same thing story-wise but in a much clearer, more overt way. I didn’t want anything too subtle. I just don’t like subtle things. As you can see in my film, everything is very obvious. I wanted to tell something using the register of the fairytale. The film isn’t completely realistic, but I think it captures something of that reality.'The film isn’t completely realistic, but I think it captures something of that reality.'Click To Tweet
7R: How did you work with non-actors to tell a specific story?
Rungano Nyoni: I’m sort of used to non-actors. Rather than getting an actor to act the thing, it’s easier to get a non-professional who’s like the character. None of them got the script. They’re all saying what they want to say, with a few changes. Sometimes, I would just feed them one line. It’s important to give them freedom, especially with non-actors, so you get this richness of different characters.
I didn’t really have a choice, actually, because in Zambia, the film industry isn’t big. You can’t go on a website and call agents, so most had to be non-professionals. Maggie Mulubwa, who plays Shula, we found her through the auditions. She was very feisty. She was telling people what to do, so we thought, “that’s her”.'Rather than getting an actor to act the thing, it’s easier to get a non-professional who’s like the character.'Click To Tweet
It was pretty easy with her. I would tell her what the situation of the scene was and ask her how she would react if she was in that situation. Then, she’d think about it and explain, and act that out in the scene. Sometimes, though, I would give her a line, because I didn’t want the scene to divert too much into something else. Still, I gave them freedom. I don’t like to impose something. If it’s not right, then you kind of correct them as you go along.
7R: Were there scenes that you had to change as you were shooting the film?
Rungano Nyoni: All of them. Every scene has a synopsis, and I basically had to throw away the dialogue. You have a synopsis, and you have where it needs to go next, and where it comes from. It’s great, because everyone is natural.
Sometimes, though, I’d get scenes where they’re just talking way too much about nothing. Then, I have to edit around that. In a short space of time, you can’t think of how to cut it during production. So you have naturalistic performances but very little control over how it’s going to end up. At some point, you just have to go, “Okay, that’s fine, let’s move on!”'You have naturalistic performances but very little control over how it’s going to end up.'Click To Tweet
7R: One element I’d like to talk about, which reminds me of Sembene, is the humour. It’s almost absurdist humour: you see this man wearing a suit, trying to be professional, but he’s talking to a witch. When watching the film, people who don’t know the culture are not sure what is real and what is exaggerated for effect. They are sometimes not sure if they can laugh. Did you think about that effect on the audience when you were making the film?
Rungano Nyoni: When I was showing screeners to people, they would write back and go, “I really loved your film! I’m really sorry, but I found it funny!” And I would tell them, “Why are you saying sorry! It’s supposed to be funny! Don’t apologise!” Loads of people said that. I wanted people to get the essence of Zambian humour, but I think when people don’t understand it, it looks like a very cruel sort of humour.'I was trying to get people closer to our humour, which is cruel, but therapeutic, in a way.'Click To Tweet
Zambians don’t indulge in feelings in the same way. I realise now, as I get older, that we probably use a lot of inappropriate humour to counter something that is very dark. At funerals, there are jokes! People say jokes about the dead guy! In Europe, that would never happen. I can’t imagine saying a joke about someone who died, and what they did. The jokes I’m talking about aren’t even people reminiscing about something funny that the dead person said or did once. For example, if someone was stingy, and then you went to the living room during the mourning, and there isn’t much furniture, someone would go, “of course there’s nowhere to sit, because he was stingy!” and everyone is LOLing. I was trying to get people closer to our humour, which is cruel, but therapeutic, in a way.'When I wrote this film, I was very angry: Life is so unfair. There’s so much injustice!'Click To Tweet
When I wrote this film, I was very angry. It probably doesn’t come across. I was really having so many emotions: “Life is so unfair. There’s so much injustice!” And then I write this, and people are laughing. They see a disconnect between the humour and the anger. But for me, it’s very connected. People engage with the subject better through humour than through telling them, “This is bad. What are you gonna do about it?” There are other things that do that. There’s documentaries that do that.'People engage with the subject better through humour than through telling them, 'This is bad.''Click To Tweet
7R: Did you actually visit a witch camp?
Rungano Nyoni: Yes, I actually stayed in one. They said I was the first foreigner to do that, which is quite amazing. I read loads of research on witch camps. I imagine these people stayed in hotels and went in and out. I stayed there to see what it was like to just live there. It was pretty normal, like a village, so I didn’t really find anything profound.
I just got to know the women a little bit more. It’s like a village, but the women are not free. They’re free from being persecuted and being harmed, because they’re exiled from the village, but they’re not free within the camp. They have to work for the chief. It was very sad.'They’re free from being persecuted and harmed...but they’re not free within the camp.'Click To Tweet
7R: I think the anger you talk about really comes through in the film. The idea of Shula, who would rather turn into a goat than be a witch, was a very strong metaphor about women’s freedom and how it is restricted.
Rungano Nyoni: You might find it strange that she’d rather die than be tied up like this, but women follow their own rules, in their own game. When I was staying at the witch camp, the witches were essentially harnessed to that camp. When I went out, I realised there are loads of goats in Ghana everywhere. This is really unique to Ghana. I didn’t come across this in Zambia so much. These goats are not tied to anyone. They don’t even have bells around their necks. They’re not even numbered. I asked, “How does everyone know whose goat this is?” The people told me, “They just know where to go. At the end of the day, they go home.” Because they have to get fed, they go to their owners. They said that even if someone runs over a goat, they always know who it belongs to. I don’t know how. I thought, “Oh my god, these goats are literally more free than these women.” So it’s probably better to be a goat, in the end, because you’re free. You can have a family. You can chill all day. They seem to have a nice life!'I thought, 'Oh my god, these goats are literally more free than these women.''Click To Tweet
This idea was based also on this French tale, “Mr. Seguin’s Goat.” Someone showed it to me and said, “Oh my god, this is your script”. It’s about a little goat that’s tied to a rope by his farmer. She knows that there’s a wolf that will devour her out in the mountain, but she escapes anyway. She just wants to be free and not tied to that rope. The wolf does devour her, but she’s still very happy. It’s about the price you pay for freedom. Women have their own set of such ropes and dilemmas.
I had them a lot when I was filming actually. It was really a big lesson. I had less of them with my shorts, because I was working with a smaller team. But in a bigger context, it was like an actual theme was coming out. Art imitated real life.
7R: You mean compromises?
Rungano Nyoni: It wasn’t just compromises, because filmmakers always have to make compromises. I realised I was making decisions based on three things: one, for the film, the next is, how is this going to come across as a woman, and finally, more specifically, as a woman of colour. So I was making very hard decisions that people didn’t like very much.
I also had to wonder if me being so insistent was going to sabotage my future. My partner is a male filmmaker, and his solution always is, “Oh, just tell them to fuck off.” And he does that! I can never do that. Because a “fuck off” from me is very differently received than a “fuck off” from him. He’s respected.'I had to wonder if me being so insistent was going to sabotage my future.'Click To Tweet
You can already see the different vocabulary that they use. “Ambitious”, for me, becomes “she’s difficult”. And just in general, negative connotations for stuff that I do. Whereas he just tells them to fuck off, and they let him do what he wants, just like that. For me, it’s always compromises, talking and talking. It’s exhausting.
7R: Did you try to work his way?
Rungano Nyoni: No, that’s the thing. I’m not a “fuck off” person anyway. But maybe I should start to be. It’s always hard to know why people aren’t listening. Is it because I’m a woman? Is it because I’m not white? Is it because I’m not being affirmative enough? I don’t know.'It’s always hard to know why people aren’t listening. Is it because I’m a woman? Because I’m not white?'Click To Tweet
There’s some things he can take for granted and I can’t. He doesn’t have to say things many times. He asked me, “Do you realise that you repeat things many times?” I said, “Yeah! I do!” This is what it’s like being a woman: you say things, and you say them again. You think it’s you, but it’s not. He tries to help me, but I tell him that this is not his fight, that I have to do it myself.'This is what it’s like being a woman: you say things, and you say them again. You think it’s you, but it’s not.'Click To Tweet
7R: Despite all this, did you manage to make the film you wanted?
Rungano Nyoni: It’s a mixed bag, and I think first features always are. There are compromises you have to make, but I made a film that I can stand by, I think. Not a film that’s I’m 100%, but I think that will come with me becoming a better filmmaker and knowing when to tell people to “fuck off”. I wasted a lot of time negotiating, so next time I’ll get closer.
This interview was originally published on June 19, 2017.
Working with young, first time actors is a difficult challenge that many directors we’ve interviewed have commented on. Custody director Xavier Legrand spoke in detail about the auditioning process and his preparation with young star Thomas Gioria. Other directors have spoken about the appeal of centring a film around a child protagonist, such as Bruno Dumont, who spoke about how “we all remain 12-year-old children” at heart.