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Elizabeth Sankey’s 90-minute gothic-light documentary is a work of art that describes the testimonies of ordinary women who suffered from terrible postpartum anxiety, depression and psychosis. Witches succeeds in shedding light on a stigmatized and often hidden phenomenon that many young mothers have to endure. However, the director takes this solid concept and dilutes it with trivial pop-feminist pseudo-history, postulating a dubious connection between the European and American witch trials of the 16th and 17th centuries and the psychological suffering of women after childbirth.

The film will premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival and will be distributed by the streaming service MUBI. It is certainly worth watching, but perhaps only 50 percent captivating.


The conclusion

Mostly pop-feminist pseudo-history.

Venue: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Director and author: Elizabeth Sankey

1 hour 30 minutes

Sankey argues that postpartum psychotic hallucinations may have led countless women of ancient times to voluntarily confess to having intercourse with Satan. Aside from reading a few sentences from primary sources, she offers little evidence for this theory and tries to couch her conjectures in banal, nebulous metaphors aimed at getting modern women to accept their inner witchcraft or similar nonsense.

Sankey, a British filmmaker who is also a member of the indie pop band Summer Camp, approaches the story from a unique memoir perspective, placing herself at the center of the film as she recounts the inner fear and terror that overcame her after the birth of her son several years ago. She speaks openly about her suicidal thoughts, her numerous visits to the emergency room, the intrusive and unwanted thoughts of hurting her baby, and finally her stay for several weeks in a maternal and child psychiatric facility designed to help women heal while maintaining bonds with their children.

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

Sankey and production designer May Davies strive to create their own brand of psychological horror film, and so place great emphasis on the documentary’s ethereal imagery. The filmmaker places herself and her protagonists in whimsical interior sets in shades of green and purple, celestial decor and lush ivy. Sankey is also meticulous in choosing her own “Dark Woman” costume, which contrasts her ghostly complexion with crimson lipstick, a brunette bob, a black sweater and gold pendants. Her voiceover commentary is contrasted with clips 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) and others. This ongoing cinematic montage is generally more engaging than Sankey’s tired cultural analyses in Women’s Studies 101.

She unravels witch cliches we’ve all heard many times before, reconnecting witches with forbidden power and a divine femininity that patriarchy has seemingly tried to suppress time and time again. We hear her ideas about “good witches” versus “bad witches” and platitudes like “being good or bad is not a choice a woman can make for herself.” She even dredges up the old story of how the burgeoning male medical establishment of early modern Europe conspiratorially persecuted midwives and female healers as witches to drive out their competition.

Witches is much more poignant when it focuses on real women who experienced frightening isolation and unwanted thoughts in the immediate postpartum period. (Though one commenter claims early in her interview, “Nobody talks about how hard (parenting) is.” I’m kind of curious what planet this person lives on, because the difficulties of raising children seem to be exactly what people are always talking about. Sometimes it’s the only thing they talk about.)

The film delves into key statistics about how women’s pain is often dismissed in doctors’ offices (for example, it takes an average of eight years for a person to be diagnosed with endometriosis). Sankey also delves into some of the most notorious and heartbreaking cases of postpartum depression and psychosis in public knowledge, briefly mentioning Andrea Yates, the Texas woman who drowned her five children in a bathtub during a psychotic episode in 2001. We spend even more time learning about the tragedy of Daksha Emson, a psychiatrist whose deteriorating mental health led her to kill her three-month-old daughter and herself around the turn of the millennium. We hear from Emson’s devastated widower, as well as from colleagues in the psychiatric field and researchers who reflect on the particular barriers doctors face when seeking in-person help. According to the experts interviewed, the overall rate of postpartum suicides has only increased over the past 30 years.

If the film inspires young parents to seek help for their own dark thoughts, it’s certainly done something right. Ultimately, however, the narrative becomes muddled by its meandering and paltry commentary on witchcraft interpreted as psychology. Stankey spends a little too much time pining for a literal village witch to cure her of her ailments and yearning for a real emotional support coven. Essentially, she claims that if society didn’t “get rid of” so-called witches, she wouldn’t have to rely on antiseptic modern medicine. Witches is not a work written with academic rigor, but is based on vague anecdotes.

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