Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses
Directed by David Stubbs
This impressive doco disperses the fog of shame and sensationalism to shed light on the tragedy that made international headlines in 2007 when a young Wainuiomata woman died during a mākutu lifting.
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★★★★ review by Christopher Murphy on Letterboxd
I remember when the story of Janet Moses's death first broke here in New Zealand. The reaction was one of complete shock, I was shocked, my parents were shocked, my friends were shocked, and everyone was so quick to demonise Janet's family we never stopped to think "How did this happen?" How deep does a family's faith have to be to accidentally kill one of their own out of love? This fascinating docudrama endeavours to answer that question.
What seemingly starts as fairly standard docudrama very quickly becomes a fascinating study of family, faith, and spiritualism. Particularly, how deeply our beliefs drive us in our actions.
Something particularly harrowing in this documentary is witnessing the Moses family becoming increasingly isolated in their quest to free Janet of her "demons" as they become increasingly driven by their faith and complete belief that there was a mākutu in Janet as the leaders of the exorcism began to take control. It's an incredibly psychological look at the power of mob mentality. This coupled with interspersed visions of Wainuiomata's suburbia makes this situation seem like one that could have happened to any family, and it was exactly that.
While the direction isn't always flawless you still are left with a deep insight into faith, family and hysteria. And while this documentary made me realise that what happened to Janet Moses and her family could have happened to anyone under the right circumstances one statement in this film continues to linger with me.
"Whoever wasn't in that whare at that time will never understand."
★★★★ review by Hershal on Letterboxd
This is a tough movie to watch. And it's even tougher if you have any experience dealing with someone in the throes of a full-on psychotic breakdown. I'm not a spirtiual person, I don't believe in possession or demons. But plenty of people do. And this docudrama consisting of recreations of the actual events combined with real life accounts from some of the people who dealt with the aftermath paints a sobering but fair portrait of a group of people who wanted to help but who fell victim to a group madness that led them to do anything but. I felt crushed when it was all over. That's powerful filmmaking.
★★★★½ review by Chris Genro on Letterboxd
A heartbreaking and fascinating look at a terrible tragedy that never sensationalizes and goes to get lengths to present both sides of the argument. A very sad film where you feel terrible for everyone involved.
It's easy to judge others when we are not in the same situation but in this case I felt it was a mix of deeply held religious beliefs, hysteria and group mentality caused the death of this young woman. To make matters worse it almost cost the life of her daughter as well.
I've always found films that tackle the clash between cultures or old world spiritual beliefs vs modern science to be extremely interesting and this is no exception. 4.5/5 stars.
★★★½ review by LeFilmGirl on Letterboxd
A story where I feel so sorry for everyone involved.
★★★★½ review by Ryan Bradley on Letterboxd
Beautifully shot and even more beautifully acted, 'Belief' is a docu-drama that deserves a place among the greats like 'The Impostor' and 'Going Clear'.
Stubbs manages to layer on a truly staggering amount of social commentary, and begins to form an essential discussion that everyone of every culture should consider. When does fighting for love, when does following tradition, when does following genuine spiritual impulse, become harmful? The film constantly wrestles with this idea throughout, a comment and point that Stubbs makes sure to refer to frequently, as to keep it in the forefront of the viewers mind, and keep the audience's opinion on the family in a constant uncertain state.
But this isn't the most appealing or satisfying of ways to go about the subject. I may have found it to be even more impressionable and understanding using this method, but I recognize that other viewers may want an immediate, one sided and dramatic view of the event. But this unfortunate loss is too shrouded in social and spiritual context, that it is seems almost impossible to not give the involved family a voice, which Stubbs uses through the interrogation scenes.
If I had to add any criticism, it is that I would have loved to see more of a backstory to Janet. We get this in a brief recurring scene at the very begging and end, but it feels as though she already acts possessed from the get go. Even the addition of one further scene to establish a greater family relationship would have aided the film well and lifted it to a modern masterpiece. And while I personally did not notice or feel the need for the contribution of a medical professional's opinion when watching the film, it is probably good ethics to include it. My initial thought when I first saw Janet was 'this must be a mental health problem'. It would have been perfect if they had addressed this aspect/theory further.
But these small issues aside, Stubbs manages to layer on a huge amount of meaning and controversy, whilst confining it into a small-family drama that manages to successfully capture the amount of hysteria, disorder, superstition and chaos that the event contained. When the film reaches a climax, the audience realizes there is something truly special, but incredibly dark here. Stubbs manages to pry open the heart and mind of the viewer, leaving it in a wandering and conflicted state for a lot of the film, before drowning them in copious amounts of shock, horror and disbelief. And on top of all of this, Stubbs manages to highlight a truly heart-breaking moment of the event that nearly bought me to genuine tears. And I have only cried in one other film from recollection.
Being able to convey all of this whilst being technically sound and eye-catching, is a titanic though unsmiling accolade. I urge anyone and everyone to seek this film out. At the least, I can guarantee that you will gain some sort of knowledge into Maori custom and belief, but if you let yourself become overwhelmed and immersed in these realistically portrayed characters and seemingly ludicrous story, I'm sure you will find something frightening and altogether unsetling lurking in the depths.
What a shame this movie's poster looks like some twelve year old threw an awful Instagram filter on top of it. The film is not like this at all, I swear.
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