The Salem witch trials are a historical event rife with modern retellings and reimaginings, from Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and its various screen and stage adaptations to the Witches of Salem miniseries, to even more tangentially related interpretations like Alix E. Harrow’s Once and Future Witches or Disney’s Hocus Pocus. It’s safe to say the Salem witch trial canon is a crowded one. And yet, documentarians seem to have avoided the topic; outside of a few History Channel episodes and fairly obscure films marketed toward high school history teachers, few have delved into the trials in documentary form. Yolanda Pividal’s A Witch Story seems positioned to fill that void.
There’s no doubt that the premise is promising: Alice Markham-Cantor is the several-times great-granddaughter of Martha Carrier, one of the women killed during the witch trials. In a narrow context, A Witch Story is the tale of Markham-Cantor revisiting her family history and trying to learn more about what happened to Carrier. Taking a broader view, the film is an examination of persecution and historical narratives we’re told about women. Folding in Silvia Federici, the founder of the International Campaign to Restore the Memory of Women Executed for Witchcraft, the trio’s goal is to “challenge historical and political preconceptions, allowing for new narratives to emerge, and spur action to address the witch hunts of the present while honoring the victims of the past.” Sadly, then, A Witch Story does none of that.
From the beginning, the film struggles to justify its chosen medium. Throughout A Witch Story, Pividal mixes footage of Markham-Cantor and Federici with her own multimedia art, using literal thread to weave her story. But while this manages to create a workable structure, it does nothing to account for the footage of Markham-Cantor just wandering around in a forest, sometimes touching trees. There’s certainly something of a cinematic personality expressed in such images, but it never feels organic to the material at hand, simply a little flourish to suggest a pensive character that never really takes root.
But where A Witch Story most damningly fails is in its approach to narrative. Pividal and crew introduce multiple ideas that would make for engaging storytelling, but follow through on exactly none of them. During one conversation, Markham-Cantor states, “I think that Salem is not just the story of a witch hunt, I think that it has much more to teach us about how to stop them,” but this idea, a key point in the film’s description, is never really developed to any degree. A deeper dive into Federici’s work would seem an easy, built-in solution to this problem, but conversations with her remain basic and superficial. At another point, Markham-Cantor expresses interest in exploring the fact that while rich and poor people alike were accused in Salem, only the poor were prosecuted — but once again, it never goes any further than mere introduction of ideas, its 70-minute runtime offering little space with which to flesh out much of anything. A Witch Story proceeds to end with footage of protests, which Pividal seems to believe is enough of an answer to the film’s dangling questions.
The result of all this lack of follow-through and reluctance to delve deeper into ideas is that Pividal’s film feels stilted and disconnected, its sections never joining with any purpose or even engaging with each other to any edifying ends. While A Witch Story introduces several threads that could make for interesting viewing if handled with more care and craft, it only ends up succeeding in tying a tangled knot, leaving viewers with little to work both visually and intellectually.
Published as part of DOC NYC 2022 — Dispatch 2.