After two years spent earning a Masters in Screen Acting at the Drama Center London, Rungano Nyoni decided her calling lay primarily on the other side of the camera. “I realized I was more fascinated shaping stories as a writer-director than as an actor,” she says. “Acting, or learning how to act, was the best directing training I could have had.”
And she certainly hit the ground running. Nyoni’s first foray into filmmaking, The List—about the impact of a list on a group of young final-year drama students—won the Welsh BAFTA Award for Best Short Film. Her second short, Mwansa the Great, about an eight-year-old boy who embarks upon a great journey to prove he is a hero, was nominated for a BAFTA and an African Movie Academy Award.
Born in Zambia and raised in Wales, the 35-year-old director arrives in Cannes with this year’s most buzzed-about UK feature debut, I Am Not a Witch, which is screening at the Directors’ Fortnight. “It always had something to do with unrealized potential and exploitation,” Nyoni says of the Zambia-set film, in which an eight-year-old girl named Shula is accused of being a witch and taken to a travelling witch camp.
“It started off as a collection of short stories and vignettes and it grew from there,” she explains. “I struggled with that version for a while, because it felt too heavy-handed. I had a separate idea for a story based in a witch camp and then combined the two ideas—and when I made that choice, it just became the perfect setting for the story. It covered all my themes, and it captured the absurd tone I was aiming for.”
This isn’t Nyoni’s first time on the Croisette, either: she was selected for Cannes’ Cinefondation Residency, which backed development for the feature project (later financed by the BFI, Film 4, Ffilm Cymru Wales, Aide aux Cinémas du Monde, the Berlinale’s World Cinema Fund, and HBF+Europe). The director was also selected for the Nordic Factory, through which she co-directed the 2014 short Listen, which premiered in Directors’ Fortnight that year.
“I feel quite connected to Cannes,” she says. “Just because before my project got into the Cinefondation Residency, I was totally depressed. I had applied for numerous schemes and got rejected from all of them, and I was very, very low.” When she found out she was selected for Cinefondation, she says she “literally broke down in the supermarket”. It was the boost she needed. “It feels great to be here,” she beams. “It’s an honor. It’s bizarre.”