One of the strongest films in the MIFF 2020 documentary stream is The Letter, about intergenerational conflict in rural Kenya. In some villages, it is often young men without employment prospects who accuse old people of being witches. This can often lead to the old people being shunned or driven away, so it is basically a landgrab by the accusers.
Kenya has a large Christian population and the church also has a dubious role in all of this. Some priests perform ‘cleansing ceremonies’ for the accused families, but this is for a fee, so they too are part of the racket.
The husband wife team of Christopher King and Maia Lekow have spent nearly six years gathering material to make The Letter, their first film. King is originally from Australia (but now lives in Kenya). Lekow (who is also a well-known singer) works the sound while Chris does the filming.
FilmInk spoke to the couple from their home in Nairobi on the occasion of their film being streamed at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
The couple can pretty much complete each other’s sentences and they happily took turns in discussing their film.
First, we wondered about what drew them to the story in the first place.
“[Chris] We originally met in Oz. We had read a children’s story about this woman who at the age of 17 had revolted against the British colonialists. What ended up happening was she was accused of being a witch by the British because she has much power. Of course, once you say ‘witch’, it all becomes quite murky. [Maia] We decided to go on a mission to the coast where my family is from and interview some older people about this phenomenon. There was no footage, no photographs that we could find. But also, we didn’t want to just make an historical film, and we found that the older people were saying, ‘actually, we have this challenge right now. We are living in fear essentially, we are being called witches because we practice traditional animist beliefs and we have grey hair’. So, we thought this was interesting as it was something we hadn’t heard before and which we thought was important to share with other Kenyans and with the world.”
What interested the couple is that this had echoes of the original dispossession [of African culture under colonisation] 100+ years ago. Then it was Christianity that was against the traditional beliefs, but now it is children and grandchildren who are persecuting the elders. These sort of ‘cultural holocausts’ are happening around the world and the filmmakers wanted to put a spotlight on that. Weirdly, the intergenerational struggles double as a sort of ‘modernisation’ as the young people feel thwarted and construct the old people as blocking progress. [Chris] “Yes totally, and it boils down to a spiritual warfare that is going on [in the country] with Christianity and Islam for example and the old peoples’ ideas are caught in the middle. These young people don’t want to know about the traditional knowledge that has been handed down for generations. They want to be educated within the western schooling system and, in a way, the same thing is happening with the churches too, they are saying ‘these people are old and crazy, and you don’t want to have anything to do with them’. The young people think they are more modern, but they are losing their heritage. It is usually the young people who say, ‘yeah the witches are holding us back, they are jealous of our success, they see us driving cars and that’s why they curse us to get our stuff and we can’t get jobs because they have been cursing us’. There is a lot of hatred and propaganda which actually is also being spread by some Christian priests who themselves are financially motivated. It is profiteering from the vulnerabilities within the families that they can then come in and provide a bogus ‘solution’ for.”
Given how complex the issue and the backstory is, one wonders if the couple were tempted to insert explanatory captions, or more generally, editorialise in the film. [Maia] “One of our main challenges is with people who don’t know the background, to tell how it started and where things are at today as a consequence partly of that. And we worked with our amazing editor in Toronto [feted editor Ricardo Acosta]. He made us think that we can’t go any deeper because we would then lose the audience and you would lose the essence of the intimate family story. Because it straddles the political and the personal, we found that by going fully for the personal story, a lot of the politics was inherently there anyway. And we think it is much more powerful to allow people to interpret that themselves.”
Chris adds, “We have shown the film to the families and to their fellow churchgoers and they see the film as proof that Jesus is the true God! So, it is kind of like a Rorschach test, whatever your personal experiences are, and whatever your beliefs are, you perceive the film through that lens. It was a conscious decision not to take sides too much.”
Along with the grandmother who is accused, the film features a Westernised young Kenyan, Karisa, whose journey of discovery becomes the guiding thread. Karisa is a likable screen presence and we wonder how he came to be in the picture.
[Maia] “We met him when travelling [when we were] in Nairobi and he was translating. When he saw some of our footage he said, ‘this is crazy because this is exactly what is happening to my grandmother! She is also being accused of being a witch’. And he had no idea that this was also happening to other families and then, when we met his grandmother, we realised she was this strong, proud character.”
Karisa’s confusion and his inclination not to judge people too quickly made him a natural point of entry. [Chris] “We thought he would be more outspoken, we thought we might even try and get that from him, but actually, he is this young guy who is Christian too, but he is confused. He didn’t have a strong position [on whether she could actually be a witch] and so we decided to just show it like it is. So, it is essentially grandma’s story, but we see it partly through the eyes of Karisa. What I loved about him is that he lives in both the rural and the urban world. He comes with a kind of townie’s bewilderment about the country ways, but he grew up there with his grandmother. So, he is a perfect insider/outsider. But also, we liked his sensitivity and openness. Wherever we went with him, people opened up because of his openness and he can be neutral and friendly and non-confrontational.”
Towards the end of the film, there is remarkable footage of the so-called cleansing ceremony. Given that this could have been seen as private (and these occasions can apparently get violent too), one wonders how the couple were able to film it. Did they do it guerrilla style? [Chris] “Well, we work with just the two of us. And also, we came into the situation with that personal connection first. We spent a lot of time (almost a year) to get their trust. We spent time getting to know them without the camera on as well.”
Maia adds detail about how the couple got wind of the actual ceremony.
“Actually, it was from one of the aunties who was previously the most cautious one. She didn’t initially want to give an interview. Interestingly, it was her that called us up when we were already back in Nairobi. And (quite cleverly really) she wanted us to come back as she was rallying her people for the [Christian cleansing] ceremony. She may have thought it would be good to have us there as outsiders filming. So, we immediately got on a bus and travelled all night and arrived the next day just in time.”
The couple agreed that it was important that they got that footage, both for the documentary and for the grandmother. [Chris] “Yes, we got some interesting footage and it was stuff that needed to be shown. Initially, the priests didn’t want to be filmed doing it, but thankfully grandma had already signed a release so we could film her legitimately. Also, she had signed a location release and so we were allowed to film anything on her property. Then later, we could get the whole ceremony and we captured it that way. In fact, if we hadn’t been there maybe it could have gone very differently.”