Credit: MUBI/Tribeca Film Festival
by Frank Falisi Featured Film

Witches — Elizabeth Sankey [Tribeca ’24 Review]

June 15, 2024

One thing left uncertain: just who are Dorothy Gale’s parents?

I don’t quite mean that literally, though the overgrown Oz extended universe probably has an answer for me. For instance, in a 2007 apocryphal novel, Halloween in Oz: Dorothy Returns, authors Leo Moser and Carol Nelson assert that Thomas and Sarah Hopkins Gale died in a fire in their hometown of Bowling Green, KY. But most authors — L. Frank Baum and Victor Fleming among them — saw no reason to specify the exact circumstances that lead Dorothy to Kansas and then to Oz. And in the case of the 1939 film, an eerie, absent presence animates Dorothy’s sense of where home is, grained in the way Garland aches the primordial, ineffable “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” That adult obliqueness touching loss, desire, terror, and longing finds itself implausibly uttered aloud in the way a child makes a map of an unknown world: “somewhere,” bluebirds fly.

As a pop myth that imprints on us — or is it the other way around? — it’s Dorothy’s sense of dis/mis-location that lingers first and most. She sings from a site of boredom and horror, and the film responds with a dream that both processes and resists naming that zone of yearning. Like any good unconscious text, it presents familiar faces in alien places: a charming farmhand becomes a dopily rakish Scarecrow, a wayward huckster the con-man Wizard, a mean old woman a Wicked old Witch.

The Wizard of Oz is so close to dreams that narratively, it wouldn’t exist without them. Dorothy reimagines her nascent affection for Ray Bolger in the figure of an aloofly hunky Scarecrow in the same way countless spectators reconstitute our selves in Dorothy’s shoes, identify in her quest to put language to her own longing. It’s hummingbird chow for psychoanalysts; objects of desire, suspicion, and repulsion return, subconsciously. To varying degrees of its own awareness — like a text disclosing any responsibility for its own insight, fully submitting to cinematic treatment — The Wizard of Oz reveals in fantasy submerged aspects of reality. What then, does it make of that forgotten parentage?

It’s this last phantom that obsesses Elizabeth Sankey’s new film. Witches could just as easily have been called Mothers, a detail that does not go unexamined. The film collates a trove of found-footage witches and — less obviously — “bad women,” many of whom are mothers. The footage ranges from René Clair’s I Married a Witch (1942) to Griffin Dunne’s Practical Magic (1998) through Eastwood’s underrated Changeling (2008) and Mia Farrow’s changing face in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), which pulls double-duty as the story of a reticent mother plagued by witchcraft of a kind. There are liberal servings of Eggers and Häxan (1922) and Margaret Hamilton herself, and it would have been enough, frankly, to have mashed up this rolodex of cinematic image and look. The film’s editing, undertaken by Sankey herself, joins the gazes of Kim Novak, Susan Sarandon, Fairuza Balk, and a firmament of countless others. The ensuing cinematic space is history as reel, a new archive that puts figures on the margins in conversation and shared space.

It would have been enough, but Witches is, like Sankey’s previous film, Romantic Comedy (2019), reticent to let the images speak for themselves. Witches is composed of both found-footage and newly-shot testimonials, from Sankey as well as her friends, many of whom have shared her struggles with postpartum mental health. Many of the women are from an online support group, Motherly Love. The film positions this chorus as a kind of coven that literally kept its members alive through their experiences of anxiety and depression after childbirth. Sankey’s voiceover binds the whole film together, laying her memoir and memory of hospitalization and institutionalization over the montage of images and interviews with friends. It recalls John Berger’s bound volume of Ways of Seeing, how some of the essays include text to accompany the images, how others present the essayistic inquiry in images themselves. I thought, occasionally, how Sankey’s narration and inclusion of talking-head segments keep the film’s narrative rigidly on-track, sapping some of the natural turbulence that occurs in splicing images that “don’t belong” together.

Turbulence is not always welcome though. Historically, some bodies come through periods of turbulence just fine. Others get lost in the margins. Witches is principally occupied with historical threads, with the question of narrative agency; isn’t Glinda’s asking “Are you a good witch, or a bad witch?” an inquiry into what predetermined arc she’s looking to lay over Dorothy? Or: is your adoptive mother Glinda or the Wicked Witch? And: which one will you be? Sankey’s intentional placement of her anthropological, cinematic, and personal essay is a reaction to how patriarchal actors have rigged systems of narrative itself to de-privilege how women identify themselves in a society. Without Sankey’s exact witnessing, without her saying the words, Witches could be dismissed as film essay inanity or cinema history novelty. Instead, it is a film that breathes, craves breathing, fights to breathe equally in collaboration with the image and its companions. Isn’t this maybe the goal of The Wizard of Oz? Of cinema itself?

Near its end, one of Witches’ women cites “testimonial injustice” — the notion that a given account of reality is denied simply because of the giver’s identificatory status. In a world where “mother” and “witch” might be interchangeable, where women can collectively be treated as unreliable narrators of their own pain, the notion of testimonial becomes akin to liberatory. Such an act cuts through the dreamspace to locate a self in a community of other selves. It edits us in. You have to be ready to tell your story, at the right time, to the right person, the film says. And that’s what it does.

Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2024 — Dispatch 2.