Hood Witch had its UK première on Saturday 28th Oct at the Halloween FrightFest
The original French title of Saïd Belktibia’s feature debut is Rokya, which is the word for a kind of officially sanctioned kind of Islamic spiritual healing and exorcism, while its English title is Hood Witch, which suggests TheHoodWitch.com, a popuIar one-stop website catering to the demand for paganism, magick and witchcraft (while its first word ‘hood’ also references the Parisian banlieue in which most of the action unfolds).
Somewhere between these two titles is the tension that drives the film. For, separated from her violent, controlling husband Dylan (Jérémy Ferrari), Nour (Golshifteh Farahani) looks after their teenaged son Amine alone in a top-floor apartment, and makes ends meet by trading in the local blackmarket of healing practices. For this, she illegally imports exotic animals from North Africa, and is launching a TheHoodWitch-like website and app (called Baraka) that put people in touch with a range of healers, marabouts and mystics. She does not herself believe that these bring anything but psychological comfort to the superstitious, but she recognises a need and an associated market and, working with a network of like-minded women, is only too pleased to provide a service that many people want. Baraka is a great success, and the entrepreneurial Nour is soon raking in the profits.
Dylan would like nothing more than for Nour to be bound to him once more with a wedding ring – yet despite his own failure to pay monthly alimony, he disapproves of his son’s proximity to Nour’s flourishing business, and naturally forms an alliance with the local Muslim men who regard the popularity of Nour’s app as a threat to their own now less lucrative practice of Rokya. When something goes tragically wrong with Nour’s troubled client Kevin (Mathieu Espagnet), she finds herself being accused of sorcery by both Kevin’s eccentric father (Denis Lavant) and by a mob quickly gathering in her neighbourhood, and has to go on the run from what the news calls “a literal witch hunt” that is facilitated by . When the men who run the Rokya clinic abduct Amine, Nour must fight for the life of her beloved son, as he risks being subsumed into, or even sacrificed to, an abusive patriarchy.
“I don’t think I’m possessed by the devil,” Nour will later say, “I think I’m just angry.” Like Gaspar Noé’s Lux Æterna (2019), Belktibia’s film, dedicated to his own mother, is an utterly modernised, even secularised, examination of the witch figure and her significance as a focus of superstition and scapegoating in a society still dominated by male interests. While Nour is all too willing to indulge, to exploit and even, once she enters a path of vengeance, to manipulate other people’s beliefs without ever herself sharing them, the men in her community prove hypocritical in branding her a demon and a sorceress when all they really want to do is eliminate any freelance (female) competition for their own healing business, which till now has been a money-making monopoly. One might question Nour’s morality for knowingly peddling mumbo jumbo to the needy and the credulous, but she is merely breaking into an existing market previously monopolised by the men who would now destroy her for daring to jeopardise their own profiteering.
At the heart of Hood Witch lie both the male repression of women, and the oppressive forces of organised religion, that have manifested themselves down the ages, and continue to do so on the streets of Paris – or anywhere – today. Accordingly this tense woman-on-the-run thriller and desperate revenge narrative plays a little like Stefan Ruzowitsky’s Cold Hell (Die Hölle, 2017) or Emre Akay’s Av: The Hunt (2020) – a plea for feminist values in a closed community that broadly rejects them. It is also directed by a man, and co-written by men (Belktibia with Louis Penicaut), in a sign that there are different male attitudes available as an alternative to those that pervade its story.
While Hood Witch, for all its exorcisms, eschews the machinery of the supernatural, it nonetheless dramatises a struggle for the very soul of Amine, who is divided between following the very different paths and perspectives laid out by his father and mother. The film may make us passengers to the strong-willed, fiercely independent, messily materialist Nour, but it is equally concerned with what the the next (male) generation that has been brought up by a conflicting set of influences, some more insidiously malign than others. Nour may become a force to be reckoned with, but patriarchy dies hard, and Amine – society’s future – could still go either way.
strap: Saïd Belktibia’s feminist thriller sees an independent, entrepreneurial mother falling foul of her community’s hypocritical patriarchy
© Anton Bitel