Rungano Nyoni wasn’t exactly surprised when her casting director vanished during pre-production in Zambia. Born in the southern African nation, but raised in Wales, she had girded herself for the challenges of shooting in a country whose film industry holds itself to different professional standards than those prevailing in the U.K.
“Using European sensibilities in Africa just doesn’t work. You have to adjust to the local [way of doing] things,” she says. “We were behind from the beginning. It was really an uphill climb.”
Shooting in Zambia was a calculated risk that paid off for Nyoni, whose feature directorial debut, “I Am Not a Witch,” world-premiered at the Cannes Film Festival’s Directors’ Fortnight in 2017, and is this year’s U.K.’s foreign-language Oscar submission. Film Movement is the pic’s U.S. distributor. Nyoni was also named one of Variety’s 10 Brits to Watch and won a BAFTA award for debut by a British writer, director or producer.
Over the course of a six-week shoot, in which her mother helped by looking for local crew and a traditional chief aided in canvassing the country for a leading lady via WhatsApp, Nyoni proved prophetic with the advice she gave her team when they arrived in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital.
“I was briefing every head of department … and trying to find people who had worked in similar circumstances elsewhere. I was trying to prepare everyone. They all thought I was being paranoid.”
Featuring a cast largely made up of non-professional actors, “I Am Not a Witch” tells the story of a 9-year old village girl Shula (Maggie Mulubwa) who, after a minor incident, is suspected of witchcraft and sent to live in a camp for women accused of sorcery.
Drawing on visits to similar, real-life camps in Ghana, Nyoni wanted to create a tragicomic parable about women who are frequently imprisoned based on little more than hearsay. “I was trying to find absurdist African films [for inspiration],” she says, noting that one of her touchstones was “Hyenas,” the biting satirical drama by Senegal’s Djibril Diop Mambéty.
Elements of absurdity are rife in the arresting tableaux created by David Gallego, the Oscar-nominated Colombian cinematographer of Ciro Guerra’s “Embrace of the Serpent” and this year “Birds of Passage.” Gallego and Nyoni worked closely together, going through the script scene by scene to craft each shot. “I wanted it to read like a storybook. I wanted it to be so simple that someone who can’t understand Bemba [the local language] understands what’s happening in the film,” Nyoni says.
Pre-production took six weeks. Nyoni’s partner, Gabriel Gauchet, who collaborated with her on the Zambian-shot short “Mwansa the Great,” began casting and location scouting before she arrived. The film’s village scenes were shot at a sprawling commercial farm on the outskirts of Lusaka, whose owners let her use the premises for free. “We had lots of different landscapes that we could use there,” she says.
Much of the equipment and crew were flown in from South Africa. Despite the limitations of the local industry, the Zambians who joined the production were enthusiastic and willing to adapt on the fly. The freewheeling nature of the shoot reinforced a conversation Nyoni had with Gallego early on about their vision for the film. “I don’t think I can tell you how it’s going to look,” he told her. “I think we have to find it.”