Index Magazine | Will Allen, 2009 – With Kelly Hushin

Will Allen, the filmmaker behind a galvanizing documentary, “Witch Orphans,” looks like any other young artist you’d see on the streets of Lower Manhattan — he totes a MacBook, sports oversized headphones, blue jeans, and a hoodie. The twenty-five-year-old filmmaker is straightforward, relaxed and unassuming, leaving his risk-taking to his art.

“Witch Orphans” tackles the dark subject of child murder in Angola, where a widespread belief in witchcraft has led families and communities to slaughter children who are suspected of witchery. It was during his senior year as an acting student at Brooklyn College that Will unearthed the concept for this film. Researching his college role in The Crucible, the Arthur Miller classic about the Salem witch trials, Will stumbled across a story in the Chicago Tribune about the killings in Angola. Murdering children had become a business for so-called witch doctors — serving a ruthless purpose for families overburdened by too many mouths to feed. A few years later, Will traveled to Angola with some camera equipment and a small crew on a mission to document the child murders.

When Will and I met recently at B-Cup, a coffee shop in the East Village, he related his  gutsy journey to Africa to make this film.

KELLY: When you were filming in Angola, did you ever feel frightened?
WILL: Absolutely. But when you’re looking through a camera and you’re there for a very specific purpose, you have this sense that everything that happens is a hurdle or a challenge. You know that it’s not a safe place, so you’re mindset is, “What obstacle is going to be thrown at me today?”

KELLY: How does instability there affect the people? Have they desensitized to violence?
WILL: No, they’re not desensitized — that’s something we talk about in the film. But this is a country that’s been engulfed in war for over forty years. So violence is a part of life there. The civil war ended in 2002. Before that, brother was killing brother — literally.

KELLY: How did your ideas about the film change once you got to Angola? It seems like it became a bigger thing — that it’s not just about these kids — or is it?
WILL: I think it is just about the kids. But you can’t understand the story without understanding the backdrop on which it takes place. Here in the US, if we found out that some kid’s mom had set his bed on fire and he burned to death, we would be, like, “What the fuck? How did this happen?” But in Angola, it happens all the time.

KELLY: It must be difficult not to demonize the people who commit these acts.
That’s the challenge of making a film in Africa. You have to wipe away your misconceptions and get away from the idea that these people are “them” or  “other.” Some of the people who did these things became my friends. You don’t think of your friends as “other.” I wanted to establish a level playing field and tell a story about human beings.

KELLY: Did you come to any understanding about why these acts take place?
WILL: One of the biggest factors is the war — not just that there was a war, but that in this war everybody fought at some point or another. Violence became engrained in people’s psyches. There are people who have trouble sleeping because of their memories of the war and the things they saw. There is still so much anguish and desperation —  you have a country of young people who, until just recently, had never known peace. All of a sudden, the higher-ups said, “Ok, now we’re at peace.” But many of them felt, “I don’t know what that means. My home has been a battlefield my whole life.”

KELLY: Do you think that the killing of children and the accusations of witchcraft are attempts to make the kids scapegoats for all the madness?
WILL: It’s that. Also, people there have on average about six kids. To raise six kids in America takes a lot of money. It does there too. So, you have too many kids, and you’ve known nothing but violence. You have this new Protestant doctrine.  Missionaries are putting Bibles in people’s hands, and the Bible says, “Cain killed his brother because…” and you don’t understand all this violent rhetoric in a greater context. All of a sudden, you have a justification to commit murder, and you have the know-how because it’s all you’ve known.

KELLY: What do you mean, justification?
WILL: Well… really it’s rationalization. You say, “Why are you throwing up this morning? You’re five years old, you shouldn’t be sick. You’re bewitched.”

KELLY: How many children have died in these circumstances?
WILL: Nobody knows how many kids have died. That’s why we had to make a film to tell this story. That’s why I didn’t write a magazine article or an exposé piece in a newspaper — because nobody knows how many. But in a movie, you can see  the kids’ stories. It’s against the law to kill your child, whether you say he’s a witch or not, but who is the law in Angola? It’s a bunch of 18-year-old kids too.

KELLY: Do you think the killings will eventually stop?
WILL: I don’t think that they’ll stop until people acknowledge that it’s happening and they’re no longer afraid to talk about it. There would have to be a better educational system too. With education available, all these problems usually fade away.

KELLY: How do young people cope with the violence and anarchy there?
WILL: I saw a whole lot of hope in the children there. Pretty much every kid we met loved singing, rapping, and beat boxing. They’re all huge R. Kelly and Biggie fans. They like to rap about what they see, what’s happened to them in life, about how the corrupt government is throwing the children aside to get to the oil. These kids are being squashed like bugs. But they see that — they’re incredibly clever. I also see how our culture constantly manipulates theirs.

KELLY: What do you mean?
WILL: We were three white kids over there with video equipment. Kids were telling us, “My mom put me in a hole and tried to kill me.” There’s the danger of exploiting them. You ask yourself, “Why am I any different from a missionary saying, ‘You need Jesus to not be so fucking miserable?’ But I can hope that whatever I captured on my little video camera is stronger than me going over there as a white guy thinking he has the answers.

KELLY: You tried to figure out the situation by documenting what you saw and heard?
WILL:  I didn’t want to get in the way of what was really happening. What is evident to me is that every Westerner goes there with something — Bibles, food, or answers. I went there with a camera. I hoped that I could get out of the way and see what was happening. But I could fuck that up. I have an ego, and I want to be a filmmaker.

KELLY: What kind of film do you want to make next?
WILL: I’m interested how belief and religion shape everything we do. I think you can see that in “Witch Orphans.” People in Angola believe in witchcraft, even though there’s no proof.

KELLY: What kind of religious background do you bring to your work?
WILL: I was brought up as an atheist. My dad was an atheist, and my mom was raised Methodist. But we never went to church. I recently became a Catholic — by choice. I practice. I go to church.

KELLY: What brought you to that decision?
WILL: I came to this decision in Angola when I saw these little four-foot-high Catholic nuns  giving up everything they had and putting themselves in danger so some kids would not have to live in quite as much misery as they did before. I really saw the power of belief in Angola. Kids were also being tortured because of what their families believed.

KELLY: Do you have a new project in the works right now?
WILL: I have a bunch of stories that interest me. One is about a small city in Nicaragua where a bunch of kids live in a landfill. They make money off recycling. People say that a small country could live off everything America throws away. These kids are doing it. They’re living off other people’s waste. But they’re human beings, and they have stories too.