Since time immemorial, human beings have struggled to fully comprehend the world around them. As we thus attempt to find meaning and purpose in our lives, we’ve often turned to religion and spiritual beliefs for solace. But what happens when those beliefs are manipulated and twisted to justify inhumane actions? Such is the case in Christopher King and Maia Lekow’s eye-opening new documentary The Letter, which shines a light on a unique type of elder abuse in Kenya.
Though the term “witch hunt” has been sadly misappropriated in today’s political and cultural discourse, the practice still exists today in its most violent form. That brutal truth hits Karisa Kamango hard, as he learns of a threatening letter addressed to his grandmother Margaret. The letter accuses her of witchcraft, a heinous act worthy of death in the eyes of her community. To make matters worse, these accusations are coming from her own family. Deeply disturbed by this news, Karisa decides to make the journey from the city to Margaret’s rural village to uncover the truth behind this nefarious conspiracy.
As Karisa seeks to separate fact from superstition, a broader problem arises that places his grandmother’s predicament into context. Through radio reports and newspaper clippings, we learn that she is just one of many elderly people suffering from accusations of witchcraft in a desperate land grab effort. And in the more severe cases, some have been forced to live in a special shelter or brutally murdered. In one of the film’s most powerful moments, we come face to face with the shelter’s residents as they stare directly into the camera during a solemn montage.
While Karisa is clearly troubled by the situation, it is quickly evident that he isn’t an intrepid journalist determined to expose a scandal and liberate its victims. In that regard, it’s sometimes hard to reconcile the danger of the situation with his apparent passiveness. Instead, King and Lekow avoid hasty condemnation by using Karisa’s discussions with the villagers to provide a deeper understanding of the factors underlying Margaret’s persecution. In the process, she becomes a symbol for a myriad of social and cultural tensions involving misogyny, African spirituality vs Christianity, and intergenerational struggles for capital.
Yet despite it all, Margaret refuses to be a martyr, standing firm in her Christian faith with a quiet power. Her innate pride and forgiving nature rebuke any doubt about her innocence. Though The Letter may leave you unsettled by the persisting apathy towards the elders’ plight, Margaret’s strength is encouraging. Indeed, under better circumstances, the film could easily have been repurposed as a nature documentary, using King’s lush cinematography and Lekow’s melodic score as a starting point. As the villagers try remove Margaret from her land, it’s ultimately clear that she is rooted in the soil in more ways than one.