“YOU ARE THE cause of all the problems in this society, and we are going to kill you.” This is the gist of the kind of letters to which Maia Lekow and Christopher King’s compelling Kenyan documentary The Letter refers. Featured on this year’s Durban International Film Festival, this piece tells the story of the Kamanga family through the eyes and urgency of Karisa Kamanga, a young man who lives and works in Mombasa but receives news that takes him back to his rural village, Kaloleni.
But more than a personal tale of immense sadness in the face of a relentless and ageist society rotten with greed and legalism, this work opens up the monstrosity of witch hunts, false prophets and how fear is engendered among the superstitious. It’s a brutal foray into what an elderly person in the area must face, but also represents a leap and a hop to the uninformed discourses which lubricate racial hatred – in all its different striations – in this world in which we live.
The granny in question is Margaret Kamanga. Born in 1925, she was coerced into a marriage with her late sister’s husband and lived her life to the full, breaking earth and baking food for her family. She’s a matriarch in the full feisty sense of the term, but she’s also vulnerable and tough; the camera loves her: every time she appears in the viewfinder, you want to hold on to as much of her as there is. Unafraid to criticise her loved ones, she is direct and lucid in thought and deed. But could she be a witch? One with evil intent and sinister powers who visits hapless young people in the night? As the owner of a piece of land, she’s in the cross-hairs of people who will use any tactic to uproot her and take what they deem rightfully theirs.
The heart-breaking spine of this film takes you to a safe area established for other elderly people, similarly disabused by the society to which they gave their all. It’s a desperately sad and brusquely sobering long moment in which many men and women are interviewed. They’re lonely and afraid – some are traumatised by the loss of a grandchild and the compounded loss of being accused of having been a harbinger of that death.
A brave and strong documentary, featuring a haunting original score, this work unpicks the taboos related to telling a balanced tale that weaves an implacable carapace around secrets and lies. Told in a linear way, it is convincing, beautifully edited and coherent in the strong journalistic yarn that it spins. This should be mandated watching for any society that struggles under the misery of blind superstition and legalism.
The Letter is directed and produced by Maia Lekow and Christoper King. Written by Christopher King, Maia Lekow and Ricardo Acosta, it is edited by Ricardo Acosta and Christopher King and features creative input by Christopher King (cinematography) and Maia Lekow and Ken Myhr (original score). It features on the Durban International Film Festival, which is entirely online this year, and runs from 10 to 20 September 2020.