Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses: NZFF Review
An intelligently compassionate docu-drama, Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses is a troubling pre-cursor to debate over traditions.
There can't be any New Zealander who doesn't have an opinion or hasn't heard of the makutu lifting of Janet Moses in Wainuiomata in 2007 and the sensational exorcism headlines that travelled abroad in the frenzied reporting of this case.
Wainui native and Pakeha director David Stubbs, along with co-producer Thomas Robins, sensitively negotiate and facilitate a debate on the matter with Belief. It starts with a child walking down a boardwalk with their mother and ends some 90 minutes later with you questioning what you'd do in such a situation.
Pulling together facts, interviews and transcripts, it's the tragic story of Janet Moses, a 22 year old woman whom family and friends believed had fallen under a makutu / Maori curse. Pulling together a family hui and deciding to do something about the curse, her whanau settled on a course of action that could only lead to tragedy - by deciding to wash the curse out of her over four days and four nights.
As one relative intones "What happened to her is so sad, it still hurts today and will hurt forever. Maybe her girls will ask us - and we don't have an answer"
Sound and plenty of slow shots play a big part in this moody piece that proves to be tremendously affecting and deeply troubling, while simultaneously passing no judgement whatsoever on what actually transpired. Stubbs isn't interested in exploiting the situation to sensationalist ends, rather more he's concerned in exploring and presenting what went on and getting the issues out into the public domain.
It doesn't make what happens on screen any less troubling, and certainly around the 1hour mark, there's a sequence that's shocking and as haunting as anything I'm likely to see this year thanks to the building dread. But it's only powerful because of the groundwork building up - Stubbs has assembled a house of cards that's so perfectly pitched and so incredibly non-judgmental, that you share an understanding and insight into why the family did it.
A chanting mantra of "Go with peace and love" builds to a rousing crescendo and leaves you utterly devastated as the intense sequences end, and the questions linger on. The recreation scenes leave you shaken and puts you squarely and occasionally uncomfortably, in the action. The story is given space to breathe and opinions are voiced without commentary - there won't be anyone with a heart who's not affected by what's on the screen.
That's the main thing with Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses; despite proffering a rare look behind the headlines, it never fully answers why what happened actually happened preferring to give you a peek into the desperation the close knit family must have felt at what was happening to their own. It's never a mass hysteria, though it's easy to understand why those around them succumbed to the mentality rather than rationally questioning whether it was right to do so.
I think that's the feeling that I was left with Belief; I could understand potentially why this happened, why it ended as it did and why any answers are short in coming. It's not a rational reaction and Stubbs needs to be commended for the way this is brought to life - tremendously affecting, occasionally disturbing but intensely provocative, the debate to be had once this calm and sensitively measured film has concluded can only be a good thing.