A version of this story about “The Letter” first appeared in the International Films issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
Maia Lekow and Christopher King’s Kenyan documentary “The Letter” follows a young man, Karisa, who returns to the village where his grandmother, Margaret Karango, is being accused of witchcraft by some neighbors and family members. Those kind of accusations have been frequent in some areas of Kenya in recent years, and have been used to take away property from elderly people, and at times to justify violence against them.
The film is the fifth movie ever submitted to the Oscars Best International Feature Film race by Kenya, and the first documentary. It is one of seven nonfiction films among the 93 contenders being considered by voters in the category, and one of a record 33 entries directed or co-directed by women.
The directors responded to questions together via email.
What led you to make a film about this subject?
When we began this process in 2013, we never imagined where this journey would take us. We were simply curious to explore the oral history of the coast of Kenya and learn more about Maia’s “Mijikenda” roots (the nine tribes that make up the coast of Kenya.)
We had begun researching the story of a female freedom fighter called Mekatilili wa Menza who led an armed uprising against the British in 1913 at the age of 70, and was persecuted as a witch by the colonial administration. As we traveled to the coast of Kenya, collecting this oral history from the elders, they also told us about the witchcraft accusations happening today, with many of (the elderly) chased from their families and press reporting that up to 10 elders were being killed every month.
When we started editing the footage, we needed a translator to help with the local language of kigiriama, and were introduced to a young man called Karisa who was living in Nairobi. When we showed him the interviews with the elders, he was surprised to hear of the violence against elders, and explained that he had recently received a Facebook message from his cousins, saying that his grandmother back home was a witch. We told him about the wider film we were making, and he offered to take us home to meet his Nyanya. That’s how the film began.
How did the subjects of the film respond to your cameras being there?
As a wife-and-husband team, Maia on sound and Chris on camera, our shooting style is extremely low-key and intimate and takes a lot of time to build relationships before filming can even take place. Due to the subject of witchcraft being very taboo and not spoken about outside of the family, it was a fragile time explaining to the family members what our goal was. We initially came into the family home as visitors, friends of Karisa, and it took a lot of time to build trust from both sides before Grandma was finally open to talking about her experience, and eventually allow us to film them over four years.
Even the accusers, Uncle Furaha and Uncle Steve, who were adamant that Grandma was a witch, wanted to share their side of the story with us, which we felt (was) an important piece to understanding the nuances and context of the wider conflict. Because this is an issue that is affecting hundreds of families, we were glad that the family saw the value in opening up their story, so that others could begin to speak about this openly, and a process of healing could begin for the many people traumatized by this religious and inter-generational conflict.
Did you do anything in particular to make the subjects feel at ease?
When we first met Nyanya, she was very welcoming and warm and we could see she had a beautiful relationship with her grandson, Karisa. We spent several weeks staying at her place, getting to know each other and she began to open up about the accusations to us without the camera around. Karisa told her about the other elders who were being killed every month which also surprised her. Despite the threat against her life, she was adamant to tell her side of the story so that it may help the world know what she was going through. We could see that she had felt silenced, and the interviews would become a cathartic process for her, which were followed by weeks and weeks of observational filming that simply celebrated her everyday strength of going to the farm to cultivate her fields, and provide for her family despite the horrible accusations against her.
Throughout the years of filming, it was important for us to also show her assemblies of the scenes, to make sure she was aware of what we were doing and how the story was being told. This process would trigger some intense discussion that would form an important collaboration with (her) and the other family members, who gave us their feedback and were very vocal about how they wanted their story represented. It was from these heated conversations that we then conducted audio interviews with Grandma about her life growing up. It was important to her to set the record straight and have the final word, which we feel is the strong point of the film.
You chose to keep the film cinema verite style until the end credits, when you included information about how these witchcraft accusations are being used frequently these days. Why did you wait to reveal that information at the end of the film?
Yes, this was because in the end, although Grandma in the film was safe from harm, these killings of elders continue today. We wanted there to be a sense of urgency that other elders were still in danger, and these news reports felt like the most powerful way to convey the harsh reality, so that audiences would be compelled to take action, or reflect critically on their own family relationships.
What were the biggest challenges in making it?
Directing and producing our first film completely independently was incredibly challenging at every stage of production. We filmed for two years before meeting the Kamango family, and it was very difficult to let go of all that footage and refocus our energy on this intimate family story.
The responsibility to tell this story safely and ethically weighed on us heavily, and the conversations with family members, bringing in their spiritual leaders and consulting on the best way forward, was a long and arduous journey. At some points it felt like the film was not going to be able to be released, but as the issue became more and more important this process would eventually strengthen the film and its legitimacy, with all members of the family finally giving us their blessing.
There were many times we were worried about Grandma’s safety, but the strong circle of protection around her would eventually prevail. Unfortunately, Grandma passed away in June 2020, from old age, peacefully at home. Thankfully, we were able to show her the film some months earlier, and she was ecstatic to see her story memorialized on the big screen. And this enthusiasm has carried through to other family members who are proud to have her spirit captured for posterity.
How has the film been received in Kenya? Do you think it can help change the practice of victimizing the elderly this way?
Following a successful run at international festivals, we released the film in Kenyan cinemas in December 2020 with premiere events in Nairobi and Mombasa. We have also conducted small focus groups in the violent hotspots to gauge community reactions. The emotional response to the film so far has been incredibly powerful. Having the family present at the screenings has led to many other people coming forward talking about their similar experiences, and we have heard the heavy stories of many who are trying to protect their elders from similar accusations, as well as testimonies from others who have perpetrated violence against their family members.
There is a lot of guilt, confusion and trauma that has built up over the years, and it has reminded us why we set out to make this film. Thankfully, we have an amazing impact team on the ground who are passionate about using the film as a tool for healing and dispute resolution. Senior government ministers present at the screenings have broken down in tears as they spoke, and we are currently preparing to launch an inter-generational reconciliation project and awareness campaign on elderly protection in 2021 called #WatunzeWazee (protect our elders).
We realized the need for healing across the community, as well as psycho-social support for those having experienced trauma or violence. That is when we realized the real power of film as a trigger for important conversations, and seeing the film gave many people courage to talk openly about the challenges and agree on how important it was for the elderly to be protected.