The Letter


Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

The Letter
"The documentarians put the locale to poetic use, employing photography of the natural surroundings to accompany a lot of the comments from the family rather than simply moving from talking head to talking head."

"Witchcraft" is a word that has been used to justify the deaths of thousands down the centuries and, as this documentary from married team Maia Lekow and Christopher King shows, it is still being used as an excuse for killing even today. They take an intimate approach to the problem in Kenya, viewing the accusation through the prism of a single extended family, whose matriarch, 95-year-old Margaret Kamango, finds herself subject to a death threat amid claims she has been cursing members of the family.

Her grandson Karisa, who like many of the members of her family was raised partially by her, is horrified to read the accusations on Facebook and heads back from the city to the family compound in order to try to work out what is happening. "If I'm killed or shot... they'll say it's because I'm a witch," she tells him and, beyond the horror of the very idea of that, what strikes hardest is the sadness - a melancholy that goes on to suffuse much of the film. Here she is, a sprightly and intelligent woman who has essentially dedicated her life to her family and their land, now facing a sort of deadly, community spread "fake news" that it is almost impossible to refute.

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As Karisa begins to explore what is happening, what emerges is a tale that is rooted in greed as much as it is in superstition, as it seems some Kenyans want to hasten their 'inheritance' of family land at any price. There's added complexity in the case of the Kamango clan as it seems that Karisa's uncle - and the son from Margaret's husband's first marriage - has had a long-festering resentment towards his stepmother. Now the whispering campaign has begun, apparently backed at least in part by Karisa's father, while the women of the family, along with their local church community are behind Margaret all the way.

Beyond the cynical economics of all of this, there is also a toxic mix of religion and superstition, which reaches its disturbing climax in what can only be described as an almost rap battle style "pray off" between a decibel-busting preacher brought in by the uncle to "cleanse" the area and the members of the family and community standing staunchly beside Margaret. The documentarians put the locale to poetic use, employing photography of the natural surroundings to accompany a lot of the comments from the family rather than simply moving from talking head to talking head. Their observant approach not only pays off in the scenes with the fire-and-brimstone preacher - who has come backed by a group of 'performative' worshippers - but also in the film's quieter moments when they simply observe Margaret stoically going about her business in the face of her anxieties.

While much is gained from the sharp focus of one family, a little more of the bigger picture would be welcome. Although paper cuttings and threatening letters - many of which seem to have been written by men with a machete fetish - indicate this is a worryingly widespread problem, there's no real sense of what, if anything, the authorities are doing about it. A trip to Kaya Godhoma - a compound where many elders have fled for sanctuary - also suggests the magnitude of the issue and gives a face to many of the victims, although, again, more information on the set-up there would have helped the documentary's overall depth. The priest, too, while obviously supportive of Margaret, seems oddly taciturn on the subject at hand - and a further opening out of the church viewpoint would also have been welcome, particularly as there are various types of faith at play here. As a debut, it delivers and has received further endorsement from the Kenyan Film Commission, which has selected it as the country's nominee for this year's Foreign Language Oscar.

Reviewed on: 30 Dec 2020
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The Letter packshot
In an increasingly common scheme to steal their land, land-owning Kenyan elders are being accused of witchcraft by younger family members and sent away. Responding to a bizarre Facebook message that his beloved grandmother is killing children, Karisa visits his family compound in rural Kenya to investigate.

Director: Maia Lekow, Christopher King

Year: 2019

Runtime: 81 minutes

Country: Kenya


DOC NYC 2020

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