Tuesday, June 18, 2024

‘Witches’ Review: Self-Serious Doc Links Women’s Mental Health With the Ethereal

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As an artwork detailing the testimonies of ordinary women who have faced terrifying post-partum anxiety, depression and psychosis, Elizabeth Sankey’s 90-minute goth-lite documentary Witches succeeds in shedding light on a stigmatized and often silenced phenomenon many new mothers endure. However, the director takes this solid concept and dilutes it with trivial pop feminist pseudo-history, positing a dubious connection between the European and American witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries and women’s post-birth psychological suffering.

Premiering at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival and set to be distributed by streaming service MUBI, the film is certainly watchable but perhaps only 50 percent compelling.

Witches

The Bottom Line

Mostly pop feminist pseudo-history.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Director-writer: Elizabeth Sankey

1 hour 30 minutes

Sankey argues that post-partum psychotic hallucinations may have led countless women of yore to willingly confess to cavorting with Satan. She showcases little evidence supporting this theory, aside from reading aloud a few sentences from primary sources, and attempts to wrap her suppositions in tritely nebulous metaphors longing for modern women to embrace their inner witchiness or some such nonsense.

Sankey, a British filmmaker who’s also a member of the indie-pop band Summer Camp, takes a uniquely memoiristic lens to the narrative, centering herself as the film’s protagonist as she recounts the internal dread and horror that overcame her after she gave birth to her son a few years ago. She candidly discusses her suicidality, multiple trips to the emergency room, the intrusive and unwanted thoughts of hurting her baby and, ultimately, her weeks-long stay at a mother-and-child psychiatric unit designed to help women heal while also keeping them bonded to their infants.

The director’s honesty is both vital and refreshing, a valorous approach to normalizing situations that go beyond mere “baby blues.” She also interviews friends who suffered similarly after their own births, women she met through supportive group text chats and the residential hospital where she sought treatment.

Endeavoring to craft her own kind of psychological horror flick, Sankey and production designer May Davies place meticulous attention on the ethereal visuals of the documentary, the filmmaker situating herself and her subjects in whimsical indoor sets awash in greens and purples, celestial décor and sprawling ivy. Sankey is also scrupulous about her own “dark woman” costuming that contrasts her ghostly complexion with crimson lipstick, a brunette bob, a black sweater and gold pendants. Her voiceover narration juxtaposes against clip footage from dozens of popular films featuring witches and mentally ill women, including I Married a Witch (1942), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Witches of Eastwick (1987), An Angel at My Table (1990), The Craft (1996) and The Witch (2015), among others. This ongoing cinematic montage is generally more enticing than Sankey’s tired Women’s Studies 101 cultural dissections.

She unravels witch tropes we’ve all heard unraveled many times before, once again linking witches to forbidden power and a divine feminine that patriarchy has apparently attempted to quash time and time again. We hear her notions about “good witches” versus “bad witches” and bromides like “being good or bad isn’t a choice a woman gets to make for herself.” She even trots out that old yarn about how the burgeoning male medical establishment of early modern Europe conspiratorially persecuted midwives and healer women as witches to oust their competition.

Witches is much more forceful when it focuses on real women who have experienced frightening isolation and unwanted thoughts immediately after giving birth. (Although one talking head asserts at the beginning of her interview that, “No one talks about how hard [parenting] is.” I’m kind of curious what planet this person lives on because the difficulties of childrearing seem to be exactly what people always talk about. Sometimes it’s the only thing they talk about.)

The film delves into important statistics about how women’s pain is often dismissed in doctor’s offices (for example, it takes an average of eight years for people to be diagnosed with endometriosis). Sankey also dives into some of the most notorious and heartbreaking cases of post-partum depression and psychosis publicly known, including briefly alluding to Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub in 2001 while experiencing a psychotic episode. We spend even more time learning about the tragedy of Daksha Emson, a psychiatrist whose deteriorating mental health led to her killing her three-month-old daughter and herself at the turn of the millennium. We hear from Emson’s devastated widower, as well as fellow psychs and researchers who reflect on the particular barriers doctors face when reaching out for personal help. According to the experts interviewed, overall rates of post-partum suicide have only increased in the last 30 years.

If the film inspires new parents to seek help for their own dark thoughts, it’s certainly done something right. Ultimately, though, the narrative becomes muddled in its meandering and tenuous commentary about witchery-interpreted-as-psychology. Stankey spends a little too much time aching for a literal village witch to cure her of her ills, yearning for an actual emotional support coven. Essentially, she contends that if society didn’t “get rid” of so-called witches, she wouldn’t have to rely on antiseptic modern medicine for care. Witches is not a work made with academic rigor, but with hazy anecdata.

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