Zambian-born BAFTA-nominated Welsh director Rungano Nyoni is set to make her mark on international cinema with her groundbreaking first feature I Am Not a Witch – a sharply satirical and wonderfully provocative film that garnered incredible praise from audiences and critics at the Cannes Film Festival’s 2017 Directors’ Fortnight sidebar, where it made its world premiere.
A film we’ve been tracking since we learned of it a couple of years ago, I Am Not a Witch was on the S&A 2018 Oscar watch list, given the amount of acclaim it has drawn since its Cannes debut earlier this year. However, it’s still without an American distributor, so a 2017 release in the USA is not going to happen, so we look to 2018 and thus the 2019 Oscars.
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.
The talented filmmaker has something wonderful in I Am Not a Witch, which shouldn’t be a surprise if you’ve seen her awesome 2011 Focus Features Africa First short film, Mwansa the Great, which was featured on Shadow & Act. 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.
Shot for six weeks last fall in Zambia’s capital Lusaka and the rural areas around it, her feature film debut I Am Not a Witch features a cast of non-professional actors from across the country, led by 9 year-old Maggie Mulubwa in the lead role of Shula.
”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.”
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.”
I Am Not a Witch is produced by Juliette Grandmont for Parisian company Clandestine Films and by Emily Morgan for British company Soda Pictures.
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.
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.
Below you’ll find 2 first-look clips from the film as well as poster art, all courtesy of British film distributor Curzon Artificial Eye, who are handling its release in the UK. A USA pick-up shouldn’t be far behind given the buzz the continues to travel with film.