A wry, mild-mannered woman in her mid-nineties, Margaret Kamango has seen enough in life to be oddly unfazed when a letter arrives on her doorstep that effectively amounts to a death threat. When a cursory investigation suggests it has come from a family member — one of those living right within her rural homestead — she remains shruggingly unsurprised. For Margaret is one of many senior citizens being persecuted and even executed across Kenya, by their nominal loved ones and community members, for the alleged crime of witchcraft: An effective, emotionally immediate debut feature by Kenyan wife-and-husband team Maia Lekow and Christopher King, “The Letter” sets out to unpick the reasoning (or lack thereof) behind this bizarre national epidemic, filtering it through the Kamango family’s ugly pileup of divisions and tensions.
Premiering in IDFA’s non-competitive but audience-minded, socially conscious Frontlight program, “The Letter” is modest as cinema, with some technical rough edges that are unlikely to trouble viewers caught up in its lively, character-oriented activism. It’s plainly invested, heart-on-sleeve labor of love for the filmmakers, who also take producing, writing, lensing, editing and composing credits between them: Lekow even performs the wistful, airy folk vocals on the soundtrack. That Lekow and King have happened upon two exceptionally charismatic human subjects to carry their study — the humble, drily endearing Margaret and her loyal, optimistic grandson Kamisa — only brightens the prospects of a broadly accessible doc that should have little trouble securing further festival berths (and some multi-platform distribution deals) into 2020.
“The Letter” occasionally makes a virtue of its less polished filmmaking, parlaying King’s restlessly handheld camerawork, in particular, into a kind of you-are-there integrity. “Chris, are you recording?” asks one panicked subject as an extended family meeting between Margaret and her accusers descends into a chaotic, deranged religious rite that, but for the camera’s presence, would be hard to describe, much less rationalize: “The Letter” paces its storytelling with organic patience, but also a clear flair for drama. Our eyes for much of the film are those of Kamisa, a young Mombasa-based children’s entertainer who was largely raised by Margaret: He arrives into this family crisis with a townie’s bewildered perspective, spurred by a cousin’s Facebook post accusing Margaret of murdering children, though he also has a firm idea of the personal and economic politics driving these outlandish claims of witchcraft.
The battle lines are clearly drawn: Margaret’s sons — including Kamisa’s distant father, a resentful ex-soldier — lead the prosecution, citing such laughable evidence as one niece’s supposedly cursed inability to conceive, while her daughters Tatu and Zawadi stand firmly by her, dismissing any witchcraft claims as ludicrous. That gender split doesn’t seem coincidental in a climate of fear and judgment that has its roots in colonial patriarchy, stoked by aggressive Christian evangelism: Margaret herself remains a devoted Anglican churchgoer, though her local priest does little to defend her from the aggressive Pentecostal preacher roadshow that her accusers enlist to prove their point, in a startling climactic standoff between very different brands of faith.
Ultimately, religious conviction is an unconvincing excuse for a malicious campaign of harassment that appears to have a simpler financial motive: Margaret’s sons and other relatives want her off her valuable ancestral land. Grotesque as it sounds, this is a typical story in modern-day Kenya, where the traditional, elders-first balance of tribal power and priority has been flipped by economic desperation. “The Letter” holds off on a broader examination of this disturbing trend, maintaining an intimate focus on this single, riven family, and limiting its wider social context to an upsetting procession of grisly newspaper headlines at the close. Margaret, for her part, remains philosophical about her ugly ordeal, chuckling in the face of her accusers’ fire and brimstone: “I’m so happy, I feel like I’m in heaven already,” she confides to her grandson, softly determined to live and die on her own terms.