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“She turned me into a newt!” claims John Cleese’s muddy-cheeked peasant in the famed Monty Python and the Holy Grail scene in which a woman (his then-wife Connie Booth, no less) is accused of being a witch by a bunch of rowdy medieval villagers. Looking a little shifty about his distinctly un-lizardlike appearance, he then adds: “I got better.”
First-time feature helmer Rungano Nyoni might not be aiming for Python-esque lunacy in I Am Not a Witch, a “present-day satire about beliefs in witchcraft” set and shot in Zambia that is one of the most eye-catching titles in Cannes’ Directors’ Fortnight section. But she’s still hoping for a few laugh-out-loud moments, and the animal references are near identical.
“My neighbor accused her grandmother of turning into a snake in front of her,” chuckles the Zambia-born and Wales-raised filmmaker about the inspiration behind the film, which she says she wrote one summer while she was back in her country of birth (“when there were a lot of witch accusations”). “I think she just wanted to go home.”
The story centers on a child who is charged with being a witch then tethered to a spool by a ribbon and told that should she attempt to escape, she’ll be cursed and transformed into a goat. For research, Nyoni stayed in several real-life “witch camps” across Zambia and Ghana, where hundreds of those accused of witchcraft — almost always women — are exiled.
“You’re basically sent there to be a witch and not bother anyone and live out the rest of your days,” she explains, adding that special magic-blocking shrines are installed at these camps to appease any worried locals and to stop the witches from flying around (because otherwise they’d naturally be on their broomsticks).
“What struck me is that they’re all kind of ordinary, and when I was interviewing them, a lot realized how ridiculous it was, which was refreshing,” says Nyoni. Ridiculous or not, the women in these camps can’t go anywhere, although Nyoni balks at those who suggest such tribal laws have anything to do with cultural traditions: “It’s just misogyny. It’s so blatant, it’s nothing to do with some sacred African belief.”
For those involved, it’s clearly a serious issue, and Nyoni admits that although she found much of the stories around witchcraft extremely funny — especially when the police get involved to “investigate” such accusations (including one when they turned up to look into a case of a teacher turning into a snake) — it’s “actually awful.”
But for I Am Not a Witch, there was only one direction she could go. “It’s such an absurd thing. … There was no way I could turn it into a serious drama.”
This story first appeared in the May 22 Cannes daily issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.
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