A land of toil and trou­ble

Rungano Ny­oni’s spell­bind­ing de­but fea­ture tells the story of real-life witch camps in the land of her birth. ‘There are so many con­tra­dic­tions in Zam­bia,’ she tells Tara Brady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

I Am Not a Witch, the trans­fix­ing, au­da­cious de­but fea­ture from the Zam­bian-born Welsh direc­tor Rungano Ny­oni, opens as Zam­bian vil­lagers sur­round a be­mused po­lice of­fi­cial. The cause of their col­lec­tive con­ster­na­tion is Shula (Mag­gie Mu­lubwa), a mute or­phan ac­cused by her com­mu­nity of witch­craft: one lo­cal al­leges the girl has chopped off his arm with an axe. (Some­how said limb re­mains vis­i­bly, stub­bornly at­tached.)

The girl is soon taken away by a gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial, en­rolled in a witch camp, and used to help solve crimes. A long white rib­bon is at­tached to her back to pre­vent her from es­cap­ing.

“It’s a vis­ual way of rep­re­sent­ing some­thing that hap­pens in real life,” says the film’s writer-direc­tor. “The women are usu­ally con­trolled through magic po­tions or, in the witch camps in Ghana, through an in­vis­i­ble shrine. They can’t leave the camp with­out per­mis­sion. And the shrine stops them from fly­ing at night, so that pro­tects the lo­cal vil­lages from them. There are lots of rules about the shrine. One, con­ve­niently enough, is that only a witch doc­tor can see it.” Shrines? Magic po­tions? “Zam­bia is full of this kind of stuff,” she says, laugh­ing. “So many weird things hap­pen there. I met this chief­tain who was renowned for catch­ing witches. And he catches them with these hoodoo trin­kets made with feath­ers and vials or blood and chicken bones. But these things are so in­tri­cate. There’s months of ef­fort there. In Zam­bia, there’s moder­nity and the in­ter­net. And yet there’s talk of witch­craft.”

While re­search­ing her screen­play, Ny­oni spent more than a month in one of Ghana’s real-life witch camps, vil­lages that si­mul­ta­ne­ously func­tion as tourist at­trac­tions, labour camps and women’s refuges. Grand­chil­dren and tour buses can visit. The women are per­mit­ted to go to church, but they are still forced to work in the fields for lo­cal chiefs.

“It’s just like a reg­u­lar vil­lage but it’s a vil­lage of older women,” says Ny­oni. “They all live to­gether. The lo­cal chief will al­low them to stay and they’ll plough the land in re­turn.”

Many of the women she met at the Ghana set­tle­ment were 70 or older. There re­mains a stigma around the idea of old-age homes, says Ny­oni, so the camps are a place for that con­stituency. But that alone doesn’t ac­count for the witch camp phe­nom­e­non.

“There are dif­fer­ent rea­sons as to why they ended up there. When I asked them why they had been ac­cused, many seemed to think it was jeal­ousy. Some of them had started a busi­ness in their vil­lage and then when the busi­ness did well, the ac­cu­sa­tions fol­lowed. A lot of them were wid­ows. And when you’re a widow you’re quite vul­ner­a­ble in cer­tain places. If a fam­ily mem­ber ac­cuses you, then they can take your house. I met this one woman who said: ‘We’re women and we’re the weaker peo­ple; that’s why we are here.’ That’s the best ex­pla­na­tion. It’s op­pres­sion. It hap­pens to the most vul­ner­a­ble peo­ple.”

Ny­oni saw al­most 1,000 chil­dren be­fore she set­tled on Mag­gie Mu­lubwa to play the lead. The direc­tor’s French hus­band had ear­lier photographed Mu­lubwa in north­ern Zam­bia so they con­tacted the lo­cal chief, who sent a What­sApp to all his peo­ple cov­er­ing thou­sands of kilo­me­tres un­til they found the eight-year-old Sponge­bob Squarepants fan.

Fol­low­ing the shoot, Ny­oni set up a GoFundMe page for Mag­gie’s ed­u­ca­tion; the Bri­tish Film In­sti­tute and Film4 have backed it.

An old soul

“She had never been to school,” says Ny­oni. “This pro­duc­tion al­lowed her to go. She only spoke Bemba and now she speaks English flu­ently. You can’t stop her from talk­ing in English. She had it down in six months. She learned how to read and write ... She’s like an old soul be­cause she’s worked for years. You have to re­mind your­self that she’s seen ev­ery­thing and yet noth­ing.”

As Ny­oni notes, the What­sApp search for a star is em­blem­atic of Zam­bia’s many in­con­sis­ten­cies. It is il­le­gal to ac­cuse some­one of witch­craft and yet such ac­cu­sa­tions do oc­cur, where­upon lo­cal chief­tains step in, and gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials turn a blind eye.

“There are so many con­tra­dic­tions in Zam­bia,” she says. “My tribe is ma­tri­ar­chal. So I al­ways get these ques­tions at home about be­ing a woman direc­tor, but never in Zam­bia, be­cause all the di­rec­tors I know there are women. It’s not that they don’t have misog­yny there. It’s just a dif­fer­ent kind of misog­y­nist so­ci­ety. It has ideas about how women should be and be­have. But it’s not a so­ci­ety that pre­cludes women from work­ing.”

Ny­oni was nine when she moved from Zam­bia to Cardiff, where her mother was en­rolled in univer­sity. The two cul­tures, she says, have more in com­mon than you might think.

Laid­back places

“I re­mem­ber ar­riv­ing. I didn’t even no­tice there were loads of white peo­ple. The sense of hu­mour is not dis­sim­i­lar; they’re both laid­back places. There’s a sense that nei­ther changes dra­mat­i­cally. Sky­scrapers spring up in other cities when you leave and come back. Zam­bia and Wales stay the same. The lo­cal chip shop closed nearby. But that’s about it.”

Ny­oni spent two years in the mas­ter’s pro­gramme in screen act­ing at Cen­tral St Martins. Her first ef­fort, The List, won a Welsh Bafta for best short. Her sec­ond short, Mwansa the Great, was nom­i­nated for a Bafta and an African Movie Academy Award. I Am Not a Witch pre­miered at Di­rec­tors’ Fort­night in Cannes this year. It’s a sort of home­com­ing for the project: she was pre­vi­ously se­lected for a Cannes Cine­fon­da­tion Res­i­dency, which backed the fea­ture’s devel­op­ment.

“I put ev­ery­thing into it for four years,” says Ny­oni. “I didn’t have a plan B. So to get to Cannes and to see the film with that lit­tle trailer fea­tur­ing all the films and di­rec­tors that have been there be­fore was both sur­real and a to­tal re­lief.”

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