Her Feature Debut 'I Am Not a Witch' Made a Splash at Cannes. Get to Know Director Rungano Nyoni
Photo Credit: Image: "I Am Not a Witch" by Rungano Nyoni via Rungano.com
Festivals , Film

Her Feature Debut 'I Am Not a Witch' Made a Splash at Cannes. Get to Know Director Rungano Nyoni

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Rungano Nyoni

Included in the line-up of the Directors’ Fortnight (French: Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) section held in parallel to the Cannes Film Festival last month – was “I Am Not a Witch,” the much buzzed about debut feature film from BAFTA-nominated Zambian-Welsh filmmaker Rungano Nyoni.

A film we’ve been tracking since we learned of it a couple of years ago, “I Am Not a Witch” is now officially on the S&A 2018 Oscar watch list, given the amount of critical and audience excitement it inspired after its Cannes premiere. I haven’t had an opportunity to see it yet unfortunately, but I’m sure that’ll be rectified soon enough. I’m most certainly looking forward to see it. It may not show up in the USA for a little while, as I suspect it’ll be only screen at high profile film festivals from here on, with Venice and Toronto on the horizon (August/September/October), followed by the New York Film Festival in the fall (usually in November) being a potential first stop Stateside. Unless Telluride picks it up before then, although they don’t typically screen African films.

It doesn’t have USA distribution at this time.

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It appears that the talented filmmaker has something wonderful in “I Am Not a Witch” – which maybe shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve seen her awesome 2011 Focus Features Africa First short film, “Mwansa the Great.”

”’I Am Not A Witch’ is the surprise title for us which came to us towards the end of the selection process,” said Directors’ Fortnight artistic director Edouard Waintrop. “We knew she (Rungano) was working on a feature-length film but was having difficulty finishing it. We received a rough-cut which was far from finished but we liked it so much we wrote quickly to find what could be done… it’s a magnificent film set in Zambia, a country that is not often seen in Cannes. We’re really excited about it as a film.”

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And so are we; in fact, we’ve been excited about it for some time, and are looking forward to checking it out finally!

Nyoni’s feature debut follows the misfortunes of a 9-year-old girl named Shula, who is exiled from her village following a relatively minor incident, and stumbles across the camp of a travelling group of witches. The film is described as a present-day satire about beliefs in witchcraft, revolving around Shula, who is accused of being a witch. Shula is the first child to be taken to a travelling witch camp, where she is tethered to a spool with a ribbon. She is told that should she cut the ribbon and attempt to escape, she will be cursed and transformed into a goat. Over time, Shula begins to long for freedom. Forced to decide whether to accept her fate as a witch, Shula ignites a rebellion within the camp.

“I Am Not a Witch” is produced by Juliette Grandmont for Parisian company Clandestine Films and by Emily Morgan for British company Soda Pictures.

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Shot for six weeks last fall in Zambia’s capital Lusaka and the rural areas around it, the film features a cast of non-professional actors from across the country, led by 9 year-old Maggie Mulubwa in the lead role of Shula.

David Gallego (Oscar-nominated “Embrace of the Serpent”) is the film’s director of photography; the production designer is Nathan Parker; costume designer is Holly Rebecca (“The Incident,” also stylist to Solange Knowles); and George Cragg (“The Yard”) is the film’s editor.

Producer Emily Morgan said in a previous statement: “It’s been exciting seeing Rungano deliver on her truly original script with such emotive visual flare and her unique blend of fantasy and realism, amidst a variety of captivating Zambian landscapes. Like in her short film work, she’s bringing the story to life with remarkable performances from a cast of carefully selected non-actors.”

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Rungano Nyoni is a self-taught writer/director who was born in Lusaka, Zambia and grew up in Wales, UK. Her short films have been screened and selected at over 400 international film festivals including Cannes, Toronto, Rotterdam, BFI London Film Festival, Locarno and Tribeca. Her most recent short as writer/director, “Listen,” was selected at over 150 film festivals and won over 70 prizes including the Oscar- qualifying Best Short Narrative Prize at Tribeca Film Festival (2015) and a nomination for Best Short Film at the 2015 European Film Awards.

In 2011 Rungano Nyoni wrote and directed the awesome “Mwansa the Great,” which was partly financed by Focus Features’ Africa First program, and was selected at over 100 international film festivals, winning over 20 prizes, and earning nominations for an African Academy Award and a BAFTA. In 2012 she wrote short film “The Mass of Men,” which was selected at over 180 film festivals, winning over 70 awards, including the Golden Leopard at Locarno Film Festival.

'I Am Not a Witch'

“I Am Not a Witch” is a UK-French co-production financed by the BFI, Film4, Ffilm Cymru Wales, Aide aux Cinémas du Monde (CNC-Institut français), the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund and HBF+Europe: Minority Co-production support. The film has been developed with the support of the BFI NET.WORK with National Lottery funding for new and emerging UK filmmakers, Ffilm Cymru Wales, and has also benefited from development support from Cannes Cinefondation Residency 2013, Moulin D’Ande Residency 2014, IFP No Borders Prize 2013, ARTE Prize 2014, Vision Sud Est Development Funding via Locarno Film Festival and HBF Development support.

No trailer at this time, but you’ll find a handful of stills from the film embedded above; and below, get to know the filmmaker, her cast, and the film a little more by watching 4 videos: the first, a Directors’ Fortnight interview with the filmmaker in which she discusses how she came up with the story, her process, and more; the second is from a Screenwriting Masterclass that she gave a couple of years ago (while she was prepping “I Am Not a Witch”); the third is the Q&A that followed the world premiere of “I Am Not a Witch” at Cannes (the questions from the audience are in French, but there’s a translator on stage who translates to English); and finally, in the 4th, she talks about the short film that got her a lot of attention, the aforementioned “Mwansa the Great.” The film centers on 8-year old Mwansa, who, in an attempt to prove he is a hero just like his late father, goes on a quest to find the “magical” substance necessary to fix his sister’s broken doll, and finally prove that he is in fact destined for greatness. I found it to be a touching tribute to childhood innocence and dreams, with a nod to the familiar struggles between African tradition and modernity; on the other side of Mwansa’s small village, sits an industrial plant mining the earth for minerals – the “magical” substance Mwansa seeks to rebuild his sister’s doll. It was a lot of fun to watch, notably the sequences in which we are presented with filmed visualizations of each child’s imagination and perception of themselves.

We’ll most certainly interview her for S&A eventually; but, in the meantime, get a head start and check out all 4 videos below.

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