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(The 2024 Tribeca Film Festival runs June 5-16, and as always, we have many boots on the ground. Check out Chris Reed’s Witches movie review. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

The potential problem with personal-essay films is that our reaction to them so often hinges on how we respond to the director. The subject may hold interest, but if the intimacy with the filmmaker proves off-putting, there goes the movie. Fortunately, in Witches, the latest from Elizabeth Sankey (Romantic Comedy), the closeness of artist and theme only serves to deepen the impact of the narrative. It’s a nearly perfect, if also uncomfortable (by design), combination.

Sankey takes her very recent—and also very traumatic—experience with postpartum depression and anxiety and turns it into a profound meditation on the burdens and tragedies suffered by women throughout history. She turns to witches, and the way in which women have been tarred as such, to illustrate her insights about the weaponization of ignorance and misunderstanding to destroy that which confounds (and also those who do). As is her wont, she supplements all of it with a vast treasure trove of movie clips as evocative B-roll (the entirety of it edited with great skill by her), serving as commentary on the larger story. The result is a cinematic feast for the eyes, heart, and brain.

But at the center of it all is Sankey, herself. “3 years ago, I gave birth to my son,” she begins, and then brings us along on her eventual journey to and from a psychiatric ward. Joining her on screen are other women she met there or in support groups, as well as experts in the field of mental health. Among them is a face that many might recognize: actress Sophia Di Martino, of Marvel’s Loki series fame (in which she plays Sylvie). Everyone shares what they have been through, or what they know, in a series of intense and deeply heartfelt moments that add up to powerful catharsis.

Sankey makes sure we never forget the painful chronicle of how ostensible witches were once persecuted and murdered, and then draws finely sketched connections between those trials, burnings, and drownings and the institutionalization of women today. Fortunately for her—and thanks to the many friends she met during her odyssey, who appear here to speak their own truths—she recovered, though the fear caused by her descent into mental illness remains with her, still. She mentions the recurring motif of the devil and possession in the archive of witch-trial confessions, and her own demons still haunt her.

At the end, we see Sankey with her much-loved toddler son and husband Jeremy Warmsley (with whom she formed the now-defunct band Summer Camp, and who composed the soundtrack to this film) as a happy family unit. That’s wonderful to behold, but Sankey insists on a reminder that everything could have gone a much different route. It’s a brave movie, and also a superbly crafted one.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

2024 Tribeca Film Festival; Witches movie; Elizabeth Sankey

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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