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“I was interested in how difficult it is to break away from the rules”

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Rungano Nyoni • Director

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- We spoke to Rungano Nyoni about her feature debut, I Am Not a Witch, which is unspooling at the London Film Festival after premiering at Cannes

Rungano Nyoni  • Director

Rungano Nyoni’s debut film, I Am Not a Witch [+see also:
film review
interview: Rungano Nyoni
film profile
]
, about a little girl sent to a witch camp in Zambia, was presented in the Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival. Based in Wales, the actress spoke to Cineuropa about her inspirations, the pressure of Cannes, and casting. The film is currently playing in the First Feature Competition at the BFI London Film Festival, ahead of its UK release by Curzon Artificial Eye on 20 October.

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Cineuropa: What was the inspiration for I Am Not a Witch?
Rungano Nyoni: What I was interested in was this idea of how people impose rules, however absurd, on other people and how difficult it is to break away from the rules, even if they are kind of unspoken ones relating to society or tradition.

Did you always have the Zambian village of Shula in mind as the setting for the film?
I knew that it would be set somewhere in Zambia because the short stories that I had written, and that were ultimately joined together to make this film, were located in Zambia. I had known about these witch camps, and somehow, I had this idea. I didn’t want to make it about Zambia per se, but that is a difficult thing to achieve. I didn’t mention the location, and I was trying to make it as if it were placeless, but I wasn’t that successful. Anything that had a flag in it, I removed. I made everything vague so that it could be like a fairy tale set anywhere, but I don’t think I pulled it off. So it’s like a reflection of Zambia, but not. 

Why did you want to portray a protagonist who is so young and vibrant?
I had been wondering: as I was setting the film in a witch camp, what would make something shift within it? And I think maybe just having someone younger that they have to look out for, so if they’re not thinking about themselves and they are thinking about someone else, then it makes them more aware of the injustice of it.

Did you visit the witch camps? 
Yes. Everyone is welcome to visit them, and there are some in Zambia that I went to. They are very disorganised and sparse, and they are run by different chiefs, so I went to see a chief who at one time had witches, but he said that he set them free because he could no longer feed them. He showed me where he kept them and the work they did for him. I went to Ghana because they’ve got the oldest and best-structured camps, and I went to see what that looked like. I stayed in one – it’s like a village, but it’s populated by older women. There is nothing extraordinary about it; it’s like a normal African village.

How did the co-production work between Britain, France and Zambia?
There is no treaty between Britain and Zambia, so that made it tricky. We initially got some French money from the CNC, then Film4 and finally the BFI. That was more complicated than I had imagined. I thought the more money the better, but it’s complex because they all want different things. The CNC is very hands off, the BFI is the opposite, and Film4 is somewhere in the middle – and then you have the added complication of shooting in another country, where you have to bring a British crew. Then we had some South African crew, all the heads of department were South African, and the DoP was Colombian. The assistants and everyone else were Zambian, and the cast was Zambian, too, which made it really hard. In addition, you are filming somewhere without any infrastructure, so you are building it yourself and trying to make a debut film at the same time.

You had the pleasure and the pressure of screening the film in the Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes. How was that experience?
It is a dream to get the film to Cannes, but it’s also a huge amount of pressure. I saw this press release beforehand, which I did not expect, and which listed the films that might go to Cannes, and I said, “Who does that?” I was in the middle of editing, and I thought it applied so much pressure. It’s public, and everyone is reading it and saying, “I Am Not a Witch might be at Cannes.” You expect the announcements, but you don’t expect the lead-up. Also, I hadn’t quite finished my film when we played it at Cannes, so I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as I would have otherwise, but it’s only now that I realise that it had a really good reception at Cannes. I was really tired and disorientated, and I had just finished editing that version then, so I was not as comfortable as I would have liked – but then again, I don’t think anyone is comfortable.

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