The documentary connects women’s mental health with the airwaves

As a work of art detailing the testimonies of ordinary women who struggled with terrifying postpartum anxiety, depression and psychosis, Elizabeth Sankey’s 90-minute gothic documentary Witches she managed to shed light on a stigmatized and often silenced phenomenon that many young mothers struggle with. However, the director takes this solid concept and dilutes it with a banal pseudo-history of pop-feminism, making a questionable connection between the European and American witch trials in the 16th and 17th centuries and the psychological suffering of women after birth.

The film, which will premiere at the 2024 Tribeca Film Festival and be distributed via the MUBI streaming service, is certainly watchable, but perhaps only 50% compelling.



Mainly pop-feminist pseudo-history.

Premises: Tribeca Film Festival (Viewpoints)
Director-screenwriter: Elizabeth Sankey

1 hour 30 minutes

Sankey argues that postpartum psychotic hallucinations may have led countless women in ancient times to willingly admit to flirting with Satan. She offers little evidence for this theory, beyond reading aloud a few sentences from primary sources, and tries to wrap her conjectures in trite vague metaphors of a longing for modern women to embrace their inner witch or other such nonsense.

Sankey, a British director who is also a member of the indie pop band Summer Camp, approaches the narrative from a uniquely diary point of view, focusing on the film’s protagonist as she recounts the inner fear and terror that gripped her after giving birth to her son several years ago. She talks candidly about her suicidal thoughts, her repeated visits to the emergency room, her intrusive and unwanted thoughts about harming her baby, and ultimately her week-long stay in a maternal and child psychiatric unit designed to help women heal while also keeping them connected to their infants.

The director’s honesty is both vital and refreshing, a worthwhile approach to normalizing situations beyond the usual baby blues. She also interviews friends who suffered similarly after their own births, women she met through group text chats, and the inpatient hospital where she sought treatment.

In an effort to create their own psychological horror, Sankey and production designer May Davies pay particular attention to the ethereal visuals of the documentary, in which the director places herself and her characters in fanciful interior settings, awash in green and purple, heavenly decorations and spreading ivy. Sankey also meticulously selects her own “dark woman” costume, which contrasts her ghostly complexion with scarlet lipstick, brunette hair, a black sweater, and gold pendants. Her voice-over narration is juxtaposed with fragments of several dozen popular films about 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), Craft (1996) i Witch (2015), among others This constant cinematic montage is generally more enticing than Sankey’s tired cultural sections.

It explores witch tropes we’ve all heard about many times, once again linking witches to the forbidden power and divine feminine that patriarchy has seemingly tried to suppress time and time again. We hear her views on “good witches” and “bad witches” and bromides such as “being good or bad is not a choice a woman makes for herself.” He even recounts the old story of how the burgeoning male medical establishment of early modern Europe secretly persecuted midwives and healers as witches to displace their competition.

Witches is much more poignant when it focuses on real women who experienced terrifying isolation and unwanted thoughts immediately after giving birth. (Though one talking head assures early in the interview that, “No one talks about how hard (parenting) is.” I’m kind of curious what planet this person lives on, because the difficulty of raising kids seems to be exactly what people always talk about it. Sometimes it’s the only thing they talk about.)

The film presents important statistics about how often women’s pain is ignored in doctor’s offices (e.g., it takes an average of eight years for a woman to be diagnosed with endometriosis). Sankey also discusses some of the most famous and heartbreaking cases of postpartum depression and psychosis in the public domain, including a brief reference to Andrea Yates, a Texas woman who in 2001 drowned her five children in a bathtub during a psychotic episode. 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 at the turn of the millennium. We hear from Emson’s devastated widower, as well as other psychologists and researchers who reflect on the unique barriers doctors face in seeking personal help. According to experts interviewed, the overall rate of postpartum suicide has only increased in the last 30 years.

If the film inspires young parents to seek help in the fight against their own dark thoughts, then it has certainly done something good. Ultimately, however, the narrative becomes muddled in a convoluted and tenuous commentary on witchcraft interpreted as psychology. Stankey spends a little too much time asking a real village witch to cure her illnesses, longing for a real coven of emotional support. Essentially, she argues that if society didn’t “get rid” of so-called witches, she wouldn’t have to rely on modern antiseptic medicine. Witches is not a work created with academic rigor, but with vague anecdotes.