The Ms. Q&A: Why Papua New Guinean Filmmaker Katherine Reki is Zooming in on Witchcraft

Katherine Reki punctuates the end of each sentence with exuberant laughter, as if the world is a place of great joy. This is more a reflection of her good nature, because the focus of her work as an emerging filmmaker—A Mother’s Blood, about witchcraft accusations in Papua New Guinea (PNG)—is anything but a laughing matter.

Dramatic and chilling, A Mother’s Blood is helping shift superstitions about witchcraft in a nation still steeped in animism and ancestor worship. 

Reki, 35, is from the town of Madang in Madang Province—an ecological gem bordering Oceania’s Bismarck Sea in PNG, a country of 8.3 million people who speak more than 800 languages, with each dialect representing a unique cultural group.

A storyteller since childhood, she scribbled works of fiction in notebooks that she kept hidden from acquaintances and family; like so many creative people, Reki felt her work unworthy of public consumption. When friends found her notebooks and read her stories, they followed up with demands for answers: “What happens next? Can you make it longer?”

This encouragement inspired Reki—a single mother of two girls and two boys between ages three and 11—to submit one work of fiction to the Commonwealth Foundation’s Pacific Shorts program. Along with five other young filmmakers, she won a four-day script-writing intensive, as well as production support from New Zealand’s Brown Sugar Apple Grunt (BSAG), which shot the film in PNG in the village of Nagamiufa on a microbudget over 12 days.

That was how Reki became a writer, director and editor. The program was also what gave her the chance to address a growing scourge in her country: the exploitation of a cultural belief in witchcraft by nefarious people.

Within the country’s complex system of beliefs, an untimely death is caused—not by something, such as an accident or disease, but by someone. Anyone believed to have caused another’s death is accused of witchcraft—sanguma—and are sometimes tortured and murdered in order to rid the community of their evil presence. Some people have taken to accusing someone of witchcraft following a death in a village in order to illicitly claim their property. This is the stark reality Reki confronts in her short film.

Ms. spoke to Reki in March in Port Moresby, PNG’s capital, to discuss A Mother’s Blood, which was screened at the country’s Human Rights Film Festival this past November. It has also been shown at film festivals in Hawai’i, New Zealand, London in the U.K. and Fiji.

Katherine Reki. (Tallulah Photography)

Explain the plot of A Mother’s Blood.

A young boy named Matthew dies in the village. If a young person dies unexpectedly, some believe it must have been caused by a witch.

Jacob is another boy in the village, who has been raised by his mother, Vero. She is a single mother, and she teaches him how to throw a spear, how to garden, how to make a bow and arrow and to respect women. The villagers accuse her of witchcraft and come in the night. She knows she’s in trouble, so she shoos Jacob out an opening in the back of the hut, making sure he takes his bow and arrow with him.

When they come for her, she says “I’m not a witch, I have my bible,” and they retort: “that’s what all you witches say—you always cover up using the bible.”

They torture and kill her and burn her home down. 

We don’t see how Vero dies. Was that intentional?

Yes, that would be too graphic. But I thought it was good to show how it is for women who are on their own and you have young men just storm into the house in the middle of the night. The viewers know she was tortured—it’s intimated.

How did you pick the actors?

I chose the location and characters. When we first went to the village there a volleyball tournament on and I asked the boys if they’d interested in doing a little bit of role playing. And they were like, “Okay!” 

How did you choose the main protagonist, Jacob?

He was just walking around the village doing his own thing, and I saw him, and his father said: “He doesn’t know what to do.”

I said, “I just want him to be himself,” and he said, “Okay.”

 You exposed something pernicious in PNG society: how a belief in witchcraft is used as a means to get things illicitly from people, often property. 

I wanted to get something out so that people would really think about what was going on with witchcraft accusations and all the violence surrounding it,  so that people will start to really think and say “yes, this is what is actually happening—it is all in the name of something else and innocent lives are being lost.”

Also, I wanted to show the importance of women in our society. They raise you up and instill all these traditional cultural ways and teach you how to survive and in the end someone turns around and does the most horrific thing to them.

So I presented a story in the way where a boy is telling us what his mother taught him and in the end he takes revenge for her death.

There is a scene where Jacob is covering himself with mud after the death of his mother. You sense that something very profound is going on in his head, heart and spirit. Why is he doing this?

People cover themselves in mud to show their mourning for loved ones, so I thought it would be best to show that particular scene when he is reflecting upon his mother’s death. 

What has been the response? 

I have had a lot of really positive responses. People were really grateful, they really appreciated it. They even told me to do more films highlighting the issue. One guy came up to me and thanked me for doing it, as he said his own aunt had gone through the same thing. 

What was your reaction? 

I thought people would think all these negative things. My intent was to get people talking about it and come out their comfort zone and sharing their own experiences about what they have been through. So it was really good. 

What about the issue of gender? Do you think that PNG women feel they are part of the #MeToo movement? 

No, not really—we’re not there yet. I feel we are still at the point of understanding what it’s all about. Slowly women are starting to speak out against any form of violence and harassment, and there is also more awareness encouraging women to come out and report such abuses. The Meri Seif Haus (Safe Houses for Women) is a good example of efforts by business and organizations who support women victims of domestic violence. 

What are your aspirations as a filmmaker?

I really would like to make films that inspire Papua New Guineans to think differently about themselves and explore the untapped talent we have to tell our own stories using our own voices. 

What are you working on now? 

I’m working on a project with an animator, Ursula Ulmi, from Switzerland. It’s a short story based on a local legend: how a fish got different colours. The story is called Idodo, or Story of the Fish. I’m assistant director and this is a pilot project. We hope to turn it into a series. 

For us creatives in this country, we shouldn’t look at the obstacles, but focus on what we want to achieve, and always move forward and keep a positive attitude.

Despite the challenges, we have to keep pushing. 

About

Roberta Staley is an award-winning author, magazine writer and editor and documentary filmmaker who reports from the developing world, including Afghanistan, El Salvador, Papua New Guinea, Kenya, Cambodia, Colombia and Haiti. Aside form her current role as editor-in-chief of Enterprise magazine, Roberta has also written a biography about Afghan-Canadian Mozhdah Jamalzadah. Titled Voice of Rebellion, the book charts Mozhdah's incredible journey, including arriving in Canada as a child refugee, setting her father's protest poem to music (and making it a #1 hit), performing that song for Michelle and Barack Obama, and, finally, being invited to host her own show in Afghanistan. The Mozhdah Show earned her the nickname "The Oprah of Afghanistan" and tackled taboo subjects like divorce and domestic violence for the first time in the country's history.