Of all the films eligible for this year’s BAFTAs, Rungano Nyoni’s feature debut I Am Not a Witch is definitely the least categorizable. An African story strong on social comment and with definite contemporary relevance, it is leavened with scenes of lyrical magic realism and pierced with streaks of scathing, jet-black satire as a nine-year-old girl, Shula (newcomer Maggie Mulubwa), is accused of witchcraft and sent to a prison camp where women are bound by yards of ribbon to keep them from flying away. It is a film unlike anything else in the selection this year; small wonder it finds itself competing for the Outstanding Debut award.
The film also reflects its director; born in Lusaka and raised in Cardiff, Rungano Nyoni, 35, is herself a mix of influences, a self-taught cineaste first introduced to the concept of arthouse filmmaking by Michael Haneke’s heady sado-masochistic 2001 film The Piano Teacher, which Nyoni rented from the world cinema section of her local library because “I liked the picture on the front.” Originally training as an actor, Nyoni switched to directing in 2011 with a trio of award-winning shorts. For her feature debut, Nyoni hoped to find a story to film in her native Wales, but instead found herself in Zambia, making a low-budget film that ticks all the wrong boxes for first-time filmmakers, working with multiple nationalities, animals, amateurs and children in a country with little in the way of infrastructure for doing so. But then, the dryly funny Nyoni has a spirit of adventure; today, for example, she’s speaking on her mobile from her parents’ house. “They never have reception,” she warns, “so if the signal goes in and out, it’s cool. They live in the middle of nowhere.”
When did you decide to make a feature film?
Probably after I made my last short [Listen, 2014]. I just thought, “I want to make my next feature in X amount of years.” I think I actually gave myself a deadline, and I stuck to it pretty much. Regardless of whether I was gonna get the money to do it, I thought I had to just do it, just to get out of talking about it all the time.
Did you always know what story you were going to tell?
No. I was desperately scrambling for ideas at the beginning of the journey. I really was. And I was desperately trying to set it in Wales. And then … I just couldn’t think of anything. I was looking at old notes of ideas that I’d had, so I made a list. It was very pragmatic. I made a list of things that I feel for and rant about.
What was on that list?
Oh, I just wrote random notes. They were all just very basic first feature ideas, I have to say, and it kind of grew from there. I knew that I wanted to make stories based on my aunts, so that’s actually how the feature film started. It was like a series of short films based on women I knew in my family that had gone through certain experiences, because all the women in my family are super-independent and kind of spearheading something. So I started off writing stories based on them, and then it kind of grew into a story about women, and women being limited by something. That’s how it started.
Do you think it’s possible to force yourself to be creative?
I just really wanted to look at it as like a nine to five thing—I’d have to wake up and do it, even if I couldn’t think of an idea. I had to just sit there and stare at the screen. I wasn’t allowed to look on the internet or watch videos. I just had to sit there and face it. But you can’t force yourself to be creative. You just have to force yourself to get up and not kind of wallow and watch Netflix, which I’ve done a few times, thinking that’s being helpful. It never is. So I would just sit there and kind of face it. I read that that’s what the Coen brothers do—just wake up to try to do the act of writing. So I kind of got it from there. I’d write something, even if it was just, like, a thought. I’d write it and stare at it. I would write something all the time, even if it was just a couple of sentences.
What were your biggest fears going into it?
My biggest fear, I guess, was that I wouldn’t get the financing. But then … [Pause] Actually, I wasn’t so scared about that, because I thought, even if I only got a little bit, I would just change my story to accommodate whatever finance I did get. I did everything quite quickly, and I was applying to several places either for development or pitching [all at the same time]. I did everything simultaneously because I had that deadline in mind. At that time, my biggest fear was probably pitching—the act of pitching. I’m always scared about pitching. It really intimidates me, and it still does. I find it very awkward and a strange thing to do.
Do you have any tips for conquering that fear?
I think the thing is to try and be yourself—make it conversational and less ‘pitchy’. I just thought, “Even if they only give me five minutes, I don’t care.” Because, actually, in real life that’s not how it works.” No one ever says, “Five minutes and we’re gonna give you £X million.” It doesn’t work like that. It’s not like The Apprentice. So I just thought, “If I don’t get it done in five minutes, they’re just gonna have to give me more time.” [Laughs] So I just kind of made it into a conversation. And it always took longer than it should have done. But no one said, “Stop. It’s been five minutes.” They never do. So that’s how I kind of got over it. [Laughs] Well, I didn’t get over it. I just made it a little bit better.
What was the biggest challenge?
Just making the film itself. The pre-production, production, post-production … It was just difficult. The whole team were first timers, so it was like the blind leading the blind. And at first that sounds fun. You think, “Oh, we’re just gonna learn through our mistakes.” But it was horrible. [Laughs] And I still feel it. It was really difficult, because it was such a super-ambitious project. We were in a different country, bringing people to a country that they’ve never worked in before, and trying to acclimatize them in a very short space of time with a tight budget. We were bringing people from South Africa and Britain—my DoP is from Colombia. It was hard. It was a challenge.
Did anyone try to talk you out of shooting your first feature overseas ?
They did—when I was in post! [Laughs] People were suggesting, “Well, maybe next time you shouldn’t do that, because it was so hard, Rungano. Maybe you should think about not shooting there next time or making it so ambitious.” I don’t think any of us expected it to be so hard. I think everyone thought it would be OK. And I did too, to be honest. It was more afterwards that they did. But before [we started shooting], they didn’t. It was very encouraging. No one really put up any red flags or anything like that.
How did you find your producer?
The first person I worked with was Juliette [Grandmont]. She’s the person I worked with from before it was even an idea. She contacted me because of my short films, and we were working together in the development stage. And then, towards the end of development, when it was looking like we were gonna start applying for funding, we needed to find a co-producer. And that’s how Emily Morgan came on board. Before that, I was discouraging Juliette from finding a British co-producer, because I thought that we were not gonna get money from Britain. I was like, “Don’t bother. Let’s just find someone somewhere else.” But she insisted. And it’s good that she did, because we ended up getting most of our funding from Britain. I think, 75 % of it. I already knew Emily because she’d done a short [The Mass of Men, 2012], with my partner [Gabriel Gauchet], who’s a director as well.
How long was the entire process?
I think about four years. Four years of my life.
And what was the longest stretch of that?
The writing, for sure. I think it was about three years I was doing the writing, from having nothing to having kind of a script. That was the longest bit for sure. Because I’m not a writer, really. So it takes me a long time.
How would you describe your scripts? How do you write?
Oh, I write very sparsely for sure. And I love reading sparse scripts. I know some of them are like novels. Some people are really descriptive, but I’m really non-descriptive. I kind of leave it open. So I just describe the action and the dialogue. To me, the script is like a blueprint. It’s just an idea of something. So I never describe a scene in detail, like, “When she walks in, the wallpaper’s blue.” Or what she’s wearing. I never do that. Just name, age, what she’s doing, or what he’s doing. So it’s very sparse, which some people like and other people find strange.
Does that mean you like to find the scene when you’re shooting?
Yes. For sure. When I’m rehearsing and when I’m shooting. I like to write the way I like to be treated. I like people to take ownership of whatever department they have. So even though I have an idea of what I want, I really do think [that filmmaking] is collaborative. I really do depend on getting good people who bring something to the project and who will hopefully make my idea better. I want to give them a little seed, but I don’t want to overdo it. I like to get ideas, and I think most great ideas come from collaboration. That’s what I think, anyway. So I leave it open as much as possible. Also, for the actors, I never give them stage directions like “pause” or “beat”. I get as much from other people as possible and then kind of build something from there.
Did you have a lot of non-professionals on this film?
Loads. Most were, apart from the man who plays Henry, the government official. He’d acted before.
Is that something you have experience with? Or was that something that was dictated by shooting on location?
No. There is a big acting community in Zambia, actually. There are lots of actors there. But I’ve worked with non-actors before. I worked with 40 kids for one of my short films, so I wasn’t that intimidated by it. In fact, I enjoy it. I enjoy the process of casting non-professionals, because once you find the right character, it’s sort of easy, then, after that.
Is there a technique to handling non-professionals?
It’s all in the casting. You have to just be patient and find the person that kind of matches the character in the script. And then when I shoot, I give them as much freedom as possible—or let them think they have as much freedom as possible. So it’s important that they feel that they have ownership of the thing and you don’t just feed them lines. And I don’t give them scripts. I think most people that work with non-actors don’t give them scripts either because they’re not actors. Actors can learn lines and make them sound natural. That’s why they’re so good at their job. But these people are not actors, so I don’t give them lines. It just sounds like it. I just describe the scene, and describe the events, and ask them how they would behave. And usually it’s close to what the script is. Then we kind of adjust it as we go along, the dialogue especially. So the dialogue is mostly theirs. After that, I kind of add stuff and change things as I see appropriate.
Did you have to make any compromises on your vision?
Well, I definitely shot less than I had thought, because we had very short shooting days, for production reasons. We had shorter days than I would’ve liked, so we had to compromise on the amount of takes we had to do. A lot of times, we were literally throwing people in front of the camera and saying, “Action!” and hoping it would turn out for the better. We had very few shots. We could do very few takes, maybe three, four maximum, before we had to move on to the next thing. But that’s kind of normal. What else did I compromise? Not much else. Because it’s Zambia, you’re kind of protected. You’re kind of free to do whatever you want. You don’t have anyone watching over you. I just sent rushes, and then I was pretty much allowed to do whatever I wanted.
When did you realize you had something special?
Something special? [Laughs] I don’t know! It’s really weird. On one hand, I get people telling me, “Oh, your film is really strange.” And I didn’t think my film was strange at all. I thought it was a pretty kind of ordinary film. Really, I did. I was trying to make a film that kind of reflected, really, a Zambian fairy tale. And I thought I’d failed. Really, I thought I’d failed. Everything I’d been going on about in my pitches, and it’s really nothing like it. So … I don’t know. [Laughs] What’s good is that it has traveled, which is really nice. I’ll know what it is, I think, when I’m not involved in it so much. Then I’ll be able to answer that question. Ask me in a couple of years.
How did you decide what festival life your film would have? Or was that something your producers had decided?
Oh God, it was not my decision. [Laughs] If it was down to me, it would’ve been totally different, because my film was [shown] unfinished in Cannes. Part of the compromise of going to Cannes was showing the unfinished film, and I was like, “Yeah, OK, but for Cannes only. And then you let me finish and then we’ll release it.” But they didn’t do that. So it was being sent everywhere, which was against what I would’ve done. I was very precious about it. But probably they were right because I was being a bit too precious about it. I was like, “No, it’s not finished.” And then I finished it. TIFF was the first festival to show the finished film. Not that it made that much of a difference! So, yeah, it would’ve been very different, had it been my choice. But in some ways it’s good that it’s not my choice. They sent it to where they thought it was appropriate, and it was out of my hands.
What’s the most common question you’ve heard in the last 12 months?
It’s always, “What made you think of the idea?” [Laughs] And, “What made you think of the ribbons?” That’s the one I get asked a lot.
How did do you feel about traveling with the film?
I’ve traveled, but probably not as much as I ought to have. I was just shattered from the thing, and there wasn’t really a break. So I was trying to kind of pace myself with the festivals.
Did anything prepare you for the festival circuit? Because there’s not really a bootcamp to teach filmmakers about interviews and red carpet etiquette, is there? How did you cope with that?
Oh, there were lots of things. Loneliness is one. You’re alone a lot, and totally broke, because they put you up in four-star hotels, which is amazing, but you can’t even afford to buy a bottle of water. So it’s bizarre, because you’re not quite there yet, you know? You’re a mixture, a hybrid of the poor filmmaker and the big star on the red carpet. You’re given a car, but you’re still counting the pennies. You think, “For the cost of that Addison Lee I could’ve eaten for a couple of days!” [Laughs] You’re still kind of in that mode. The Q&As aren’t bad, because I did that with the shorts. They weren’t really a kind of a culture shock. But the funny thing is, when you’re doing shorts, you always compare yourself to feature filmmakers. You think, “Oh, everyone loves the feature filmmakers, don’t they?” But then you make a feature film and you’re like, “Yeah, but you’re still bottom of the ladder. You’re the first-time feature filmmaker, and no one really cares that much.” So it’s funny that you kind of desire this thing. And then you get it and you’re like, “It’s not what I thought it would be.”
What did you learn from that experience?
I think the main thing I have to learn for my next feature film is not to answer questions that I don’t feel comfortable with. I’ll do that next time. This time, I was trying to answer everything and please everyone. You’re always being invited to places. Thank God I have an agent to filter it, because I always feel bad saying no. People don’t realize. It’s an anxiety thing. You say no and it seems like such a big deal. You’re thinking about it for days, and you’re talking about it for weeks after, trying to justify it. I’m going to parties I don’t want to go to because I just can’t say no! But really, I would like to just say no, because I don’t like parties. One day I’ll be brave enough to do it. I’m not quite there yet.
What advice would you give a filmmaker who’s just starting out?
You know what? People are always gonna give you advice about what you ought to do. But for me, the only thing that will ever work, which trumps everything, is just to work hard. They’ll always tell you, “Do this, go there, go to film school.” But I didn’t go to film school. They say, “You’ve got to network.” But I hate networking. I never did it. I found my own way and got there. And I just think hard work really overrides everything. Because I’m not connected, nothing. I just put in all the hours. You have to just put in the hours, I think.
And what’s next for you?
I don’t know. I’m having loads of meetings with producers who ask me the same question. I’m like, “I don’t know. I’m so sorry! Do you have anything?” So I’m asking everyone if they have anything! I even had a cab driver pitch me a script. I was like, “Send it! Send it! Just send me whatever you have!” [Laughs] I’m looking everywhere. Searching for my next project.