DOC NYC 2020: “The Letter” Review – A Kenyan Tale of Witchcraft Accusations

“What would you do if your grandmother is accused of witchcraft?” sounds like an insane question to ask in 2020, but in some African countries, it’s not. Kenya’s official Oscar submission, “The Letter”, is a documentary that explores the very real issue of Kenyan elders being murdered due to accusations of wizardry.

The film follows Karisa, an optimistic young man returning to his rural hometown to investigate the threats received by his lovely grandmother, Margaret. Someone is blaming her for the village’s misfortunes (business trouble, infertility, droughts, etc…), and these allegations are usually followed by a group of people showing up to kill the accused.

Things get more disturbing when Karisa realizes that his own estranged father and other members of the family are responsible for spreading the rumors. They even have their own priests to support them. The motivations are clear: They want to obtain Margaret’s land. Unfortunately, using this witchcraft narrative is quite common in Kenya.

To show the extent of the problem, Karisa visits a secret shelter for elders accused of witchcraft. The victims share heartbreaking stories about their own children using seers and priests to get rid of them. One of them survived a machete attack, managed to escape the assassins and made his way to the shelter. The testimonies provide an understanding of the deep emotional wounds that the evil campaigns of misinformation have caused. This whole sequence is remarkable and the high point of “The Letter.” I wish the directors had explored a little bit more about this place.

“The Letter” | DOC NYC 2020

Wife-and-husband team Maia Lekow and Christopher King directed, wrote, shot, edited and even made some music for “The Letter.” The end product is flawed due to an unfocused narrative, sloppy editing, excessive meandering and a baffling use of slow motion to stretch sequences. However, there’s real passion behind the project, and the observational approach effectively manages to capture the day-to-day of a rural community and the complex relationships of a family living in it.

The documentary offers fascinating insight into a culture trapped in religion. Colonialism and Christian intervention have scarred this community, leading to a dangerous mix of consumerism, gender repression, traditional values and religious ideas. This complexity is perfectly exemplified in the third act when an unhinged rite takes place during a “cleansing ceremony” while grandma Margaret watches it all peacefully, sitting in a chair.

Beneath the cultural and religious tone, we can find a sweet story about a grandson preoccupied for his grandma. The most heartfelt scenes are conversations between Karisa and Margaret. The former is always calm but clearly befuddled by the absolute craziness going on around him, and the latter doesn’t worry too much about the threats but is definitely heartbroken at the behavior of her children.

“The Letter” is a window into a surprising world where corruption is somehow ingrained into magic folklore and baseless accusations can easily lead to bloodshed and power. It will not light the Oscar race on fire, but if you are looking to learn about underrepresented African cultures, this is a tremendous opportunity to do so. 

“The Letter” is available to stream as a part of DOC NYC 2020 through November 19. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram for more festival coverage.


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