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79 minutes, 2005, USA and Ghana Producer/ Director: Allison Berg in Dagbani and English with English subtitles
ABOUT THE FILM
From Tanzania and Zambia to Ivory Coast and Ghana belief in witchcraft continues to terrorize women: the denunciation, brutal beating, the banishment to an unknown village without family or friends. In Northern Ghana alone there are estimated to be more than 5000 ‘witches’ confined to ‘witches villages,’ part sanctuaries, part prisons. Witches in Exile is the first film to tell their story and the story of the human rights struggle to find a solution to a practice deeply embedded in African tradition and gender economics.
Witches in Exile introduces us to four women who have taken refuge in the Kukuo witches’ camp and who represent a cross section of the ‘witch’ population of Northern Ghana today. It leads us on a step by step journey on how a woman becomes stigmatized as a ‘witch.’ ‘Witches’ are overwhelmingly older women who are no longer of value for bearing children or doing heavy field work. They are characteristically accused of killing family members or causing crop failures, natural misfortunes to which they must attribute supernatural causes. Accusations of witchcraft tend to increase during periods of social upheaval and development such as at the time of Independence or the present period of economic austerity.
Once accused of witchcraft, women are stoned or beaten and then taken to a traditional priest who is believed to have special powers for detecting witches. After the accused woman drinks a concoction, a chicken is killed and the manner of its death throes determines guilt or innocence. Some of the women themselves even come to believe in their own guilt and admit to spirit possession. A condemned woman must remain in the witches’ camp; the village chief provides her with a hut where she tries to scrape out an impoverished living for herself, giving a share to the chief. No watchtowers or fences are necessary; if she returns to her home village she knows she could be killed or beaten again. Much of the local population appears to enthusiastically endorse this cruel practice, especially men; one woman, however, dryly observes, “A witch is anyone you don’t like.” Originating in pre-Christian, pre-Islamic oral tradition, the belief has passed directly into contemporary culture especially through the medium of popular video movies which spread like wildfire across the country.
In Accra and other modernizing regions of Ghana, as well as among the human rights community, there is considerable embarrassment over the persistence of this deep-seated superstition. (Although the depth of this concern is mitigated somewhat by the fact that the Director for Human Rights for the Northern Region admits he still believes in witchcraft.) Several solutions have been suggested such as closing the camps - even turning them into tourist attractions. But when a parliamentary delegation on human rights visited the camps intent on closing them, they found the women themselves adamantly opposed because they knew they would not be accepted by their families and home villages.
Allison Berg’s documentary is exceptional among ‘exposés’ of African traditional practices, like female genital mutilation, in its sensitivity to the larger belief system which underlies witchcraft. Witches in Exile makes clear that one cannot successfully attack a phenomenon like witches’ camps in isolation but must see them as part of a wider set of beliefs designed to exclude women, especially older women, who have out-lived their place in Dagboni society. The film untangles the complex intersection of anthropology, political science and economics which must be addressed in any strategy for liberating women in Africa.
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Unllike so many other treatments of this topic, Witches in Exile provides a rich and complex account of how modern Africans themselves struggle to understand and manage the reality of witchcraft in their world. This film is a moving testimony to the paradoxical coexistence, here as elsewhere of inhumanity and concern, cruelty and caring, ignorance and insight.
Jean Comaroff, University of Chicago
Offers a contemporary and engaging perspective on en enduring and complex praxis...points to new possibilities for a critical rethinking of withcraft and its accompanying violence in the light of human rights.
Elias Bongmba, Rice Univeristy
This film makes a very important contribution to ongoing discourses on women’s human rights. Artfully done, engaging and told with sensitivity to the plight of the women.
I found this film gripping and very much a lesson for the present in cultural history, environmental history, gender studies.