To prepare for her directorial debut, Welsh-Zambian filmmaker Rungano Nyoni spent a month living in a 200-year-old Ghanaian witch camp, which houses women who have been accused of witchcraft and exiled from their communities. She was surprised by what she found, even if she didn't spot much evidence of supernatural powers.
"It was amazing to me how all the women helped each other. There was a lot of solidarity, even if they were Muslim or Christian or from a different tribe," she reminisces.
The real-life overseers of the witch camp used various strategies ensure the women's passive compliance. "Sometimes they imprison them and paint a border around them in chalk, and say, 'if you go past this point, you die,'" Nyoni says. "Other-times, they're given a concoction to drink, and if they don't obey certain rules—which usually involve slave labor—they're told they'll die."
The witch camps of northern Ghana—part prison; part tourist attraction; part community for vulnerable women—were imaginative loam for I Am Not A Witch, Nyoni's satirical depiction of a fictional camp in Zambia.
The film tells the story of Shula (played by Maggie Mulubwa in her screen debut), a 12-year-old orphan ostracized from her remote Zambian village after her neighbors accuse her of witchcraft. She's sent to a witch camp, where she lives with an outcast community of witches who become her unorthodox surrogate family.
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Shula, like her fellow witches, is physically connected by a long white ribbon to her captor, the camp's overseer Mr. Banda (Henry BJ Phiri). At his request, the ribbon pinned to her dress can be wound tightly, restricting her movement, or unwound, allowing her to roam more freely. If she cuts the ribbon, Shula is told she'll turn into a goat.
"The white ribbons were a representation of the limitations the witches have to endure in real life," Nyoni explains. "I wanted something to physicalize that idea."
The film follows Shula as she is driven across Zambia in rusty minivans and smart 4x4s by Banda, who acts partially as her mentor, and partially as a sort of spiritual pimp. She's asked to pick a thief out of a lineup (pick the one who looks guilty, advises a fellow witch she calls for help); to bring rains to end a drought; she even appears on daytime TV, hawking Banda's line of witch-blessed eggs.
Shula is a mostly silent presence throughout. She's shunned by her village, physically dragged out of school, and exploited by Banda for financial profit. In a pivotal scene towards the end of the film, Shula questions whether it might have been better to cut her ribbon and become a goat.
But despite this, Shula finds a way to carve autonomy out of her increasingly desperate situation. In one scene, she locks Banda out of a mini-van and sits mutely ignoring him as he demands to be let back in. I ask Nyoni why these small acts of defiance were important to depict.
"I showed my script to a bunch of people after I wrote it, and they kept telling me that Shula needed to be more sassy," Nyoni explains. "I was like, 'What does that mean? Why sassy?"
Shula, Nyoni explains, is an orphan girl in a remote rural village. "She's not going to have a voice," she says. "She hasn't been brought up to know that she has agency and a right to say no to stuff. I wanted to make her a realistic heroine. She's alone, and she's trying to figure out what the world is, and her little act is really brave and strong."
Although a film about exploitation and abuse, I Am Not A Witch is also a satire. Much of the film's humor comes from the casting of Phiri, a Zambian comedian, as Mr. Banda. Simultaneously obsequious, pathetic, and pitiable, Phiri brings a physical comedy to the role that provides much-needed levity, especially given how grim the narrative turns. (One standout scene towards the end of the film involves Mr. Banda groveling before an angry witch doctor for briefly sending Shula to school.)
"One of my biggest inspirations was Stanley Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove," says Nyoni when asked why she decided to frame I Am Not A Witch as satire. "It's a really angry film, and it's a useful way to engage an audience rather than just flinging things in people's faces and telling them how wrong and angry they should be."
I tell her one of my favorite scenes from the film is when a plummy British tourist, visiting the witch camps, coerces an obviously despondent Shula into posing for a selfie on the grounds it will "cheer her up." It's excruciating, and also brings to mind the phenomenon of grinning Westerners with barefoot children in developing nations that's become a social media staple of our times.
"The women in these witch camps become objects for everyone," says Nyoni, explaining that she was interested in how we can become complicit in the rules that divide and oppress people by the simple act of leaving them unchallenged. What Shula endures—being denied an education, ostracized from her community, and forced to work to survive—is commonplace. There are many Shulas around the world, and not all of them are witches. "It's a film about exploitation and oppression," Nyoni says.
I Am Not A Witch isn't a perfect film. At times, it feels overly stylized: Some shots drag on too long, and others lack narrative exposition—making it hard to follow what's going on, particularly towards the end of the film. But it is a remarkable achievement from a first-time director, even if Nyoni is struggling to relax into her success.
"I feel very, very lucky," she says. "I don't know if it's because I'm a woman director of color, but I always feel paranoid this is my last chance to make a film. I feel that. You're at Cannes, and everyone's saying just to enjoy it, but I keep thinking, 'What's my next thing, I need to focus on the next thing.'"
She laughs. "I guess I just need to enjoy it, for now."