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FIPADOC 2022

Review: Witchcraft Stories

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- After Kongo, Hadrien La Vapeur and Corto Vaclav deliver another fascinating documentary set in Brazzaville about a surprising group of magistrates untangling accounts of black magic

Review: Witchcraft Stories

"We’re going to perform a ritual. Come, spirits! Come and help us!" In their previous cinematic adventure - the brilliant Kongo [+see also:
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film profile
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(presented in Cannes’ 2019 ACID line-up and nominated for 2021’s Best Documentary Lumière) - French directors Hadrien La Vapeur and Corto Vaclav paid a quick visit to the Tenrikyo Customary Court in Brazzaville’s working class district Makélékélé. This time round, they’ve decided to set up shop on the premises by way of their latest opus Witchcraft Stories, which was unveiled in FIPADOC’s national competition and is just as captivating as its predecessor.

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"False accusations of black magic, fanciful dreams, mysterious illness, theft of an aquatic entity, fetish practices". Displayed on the outside wall of the local court (a relatively modest building which nonetheless attracts large audiences), the hearings programme is somewhat astonishing. But for the president, the vice-president, the clerk, the rituals specialist, the assessors, the secretary, the orderly, the trial-by-ordeal representatives (specialists in judicial tests which date back to the Middle Ages and are aimed at establishing the innocence or guilt of the accused) and, of course, the litigants themselves, it’s all very serious, if not crucial.

And so, draped in black robes, having called upon the spirits of former judges by way of the ringing of a bell, our magistrates listen very carefully to their plaintiffs highly colourful accounts, question suspects methodically, deliberate at a distance ("Let’s send them to the clairvoyants! – Let’s opt for a fast-track procedure instead – If you carry out the mortar ritual, those on the list are clearly going to die", "Let’s not involve any other magicians in this case, because it’s already a very sensitive issue to tackle") and they deliver their verdicts with the main aim of achieving conciliation and reconciliation, but without ever forgetting the raison d’être of their mission: "That our authority is respected and witches unmasked!"

Putting an end to a series of strange deaths, returning the stolen spirit of a mermaid - embodying the power of family ancestors - to its rightful owner, arranging forgiveness and freeing both sides from hexes of all kinds… There’s no shortage of work in an environment where misfortune is wished upon "he who dares to exit his body in order to perform invisible acts and consort with dark powers or consult with magic men in a bid to cast spells!" These firmly anchored beliefs might raise a few smiles from Western viewers (or even laughs, given how incredibly well recounted these disputes sometimes are), but the filmmakers gradually manage to lend a sense of “normality” and societal influence to proceedings. It’s a fascinating parallel universe explored with sober and sophisticated immersive skill, in a film which understands the importance of breaks outside of the courtroom (at the magistrates’ school, on the banks of a river, in a village, on Brazzaville’s roads and exploring Brazzaville by night, etc.), which creates a subtle musical atmosphere, and which lends a voice to its protagonists who offer up more “rational” explanations of the motives behind witchcraft. It’s a film which delves into the paradoxes found on the other side of this strange fire curtain, which will win over lovers of films set elsewhere.

Witchcraft Stories is produced by BrotherFilms and Expédition Invisible in co-production with Canal+ International and with the support of France Télévisions and TV5 Monde.

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(Translated from French)

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