Sor­cerer’s apprentice

i am not a witch i Sin­gu­lar satire ex­plores Africa’s witch camps…

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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.

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