i am not a witch i Singular satire explores Africa’s witch camps…
Iwent to the palace of a chief who kept witches,” starts Zambianborn Welsh director Rungano Nyoni of how she researched her strikingly original debut about a young girl, Shula (Maggie Mulubwa), who’s exiled to a witch camp. “He captures them and then they work for him; farm work.” That was in Zambia. “Then in Ghana they have the oldest witch camps. Hundreds of years old. They look like normal villages. The one I looked at was a bit off from the main town. It was just full of older women who have to work for their chief.”
Such camps really do, incredibly, exist, full of women whose families have cast them out due to matters of inheritance, jealousy or simply because they’re old and a burden. I Am Not A Witch captures the corruption, dogma and misogyny behind these camps, as well as the low-key rhythms of dirt-poor rural life. But it’s no slab of realist-miserabilism, instead playing more like a dystopian sci-fi, with any social comment leavened by deadpan humour, heightened imagery and a soundtrack that ranges from Vivaldi to Estelle’s ‘American Boy’.
“That was really important to me,” nods Nyoni. “I wanted people to engage with the characters rather than just feel sorry for them.” She grins. “I really love sci-fi! I didn’t want people to think it was real. If
I picked a country, like Ghana, people would think: ‘Ghana is shit.’ That’s why I made it multiple tribes – so you can’t pinpoint it. I was trying to find a heightened visual representation of what happens in real life.
I went by my gut.”
Nyoni worked on I Am Not A Witch for three-and-a-half years, with five months of it spent in the Cannes Film Festival’s Résidence du Festival programme in Paris, where she was aided in bottling her starburst of ideas into a workable script. The actual shoot, in Zambia, lasted six weeks, but the first cut of the film stretched to three-and-a-half hours and it was a real race to fashion the 90-minute feature that played in the Directors’ Fortnight strand of this year’s Cannes.
Much of the film’s success is down to the casting of compelling non-professionals. They were plucked from fashion shows and photos, street casting and workshops, with nine-year-old lead Maggie Mulubwa picked from 900 girls.
“She was shy in the morning and then you couldn’t get her to shut up,” smiles Nyoni. “She was easy to direct. I just told her the scene, the situation, and said, ‘What would you do?’ And then we’d film it. Then I’d say, ‘You’re talking too much’ or ‘Don’t look at the camera’.
But that was about it.”
ETA | 20 OCTOBER / I AM NOT A WITCH OPENS NEXT MONTH.
tourist trap Gloria Huwiler (above) plays a tourist visiting the witch camp where Maggie Mulubwa (below) is held.