Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses (2015) – movie review

In 2015, a New Zealand documentary tried to shed light on one of the most mysterious and baffling cases of ‘exorcism’ and ‘possession’ in recent years.

Currently available on Netflix, this film combines re-enactments of the events with actual footage from the court where the case was held and discussed. It’s this mixture that makes for a surreal and yet ultra-realistic experience that has its roots in both horror and drama.

Belief - documentary reviewBriefly, the story: in 2007, Janet Moses (22) was living with his enlarged family in Wainuiomata, New Zealand, had two young children, was in a turbulent relationship with a man who cheated on her and was struggling with the recent death of her grandmother. This set-up created something even more unsettling and disturbing. Whether Janet was indeed possessed or actually just suffering from a mental breakdown, she’s been subjected by her family and a few family friends to a so-called “mākutu lifting”: the Maori version of an exorcism, influenced by catholic rituals as well, that eventually led to Janet’s death.

The documentary, which follows the papers of the case rather closely, tries to clarify what really happened and the way it happened, all the while focusing on the power of belief and its, perhaps, extreme consequences.

There are a few important reasons why I wanted to talk about Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses. First, it’s on Netflix, thus I’d like to recommend something that’s available on such an accessible platform. Secondly, I always considered documentary as a genre of film (to a certain degree). Thirdly, and most importantly, Belief is based on a case that caused public controversy and the documentary itself hasn’t been devoid of criticism.

Though I don’t want to talk about the case here, I suggest you to check this articles out if you want to learn more about it (here, here and here).

Instead, I’m going to explain what this film did right (and the few things it did wrong), and what the controversies come from.

Continue reading and check my final grade below…

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Firstly, as a documentary, Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses works because it uses very compelling and horror-related real events, and it follows these events extremely close. This is a very accurate movie that can both scare audiences with the authenticity of the source material (so to speak) and educate people on the story.

The interviews to people who took part in the ‘exorcism’, as well as those to actors who read the official statements of others who were involved but didn’t want to be filmed, are really powerful in showing the contrast between ‘common sense’ and tribal religiosity. In other words, it’s actually interesting to see (and I’m saying this with all due respect towards Maori culture) how an engrained culture can affect a vast group of people to the point they involuntarily torture and kill someone who they love.

Belief - documentary featureAlthough judges and jury had found many family members’ guilty of 2nd degree murder, the documentary became controversial because, according to many New Zealanders, it puts Maori culture in a bad light. Since the filmmakers based their script off of the official papers, the documentary might seem biased and single-sided. However, I believe the aim of the filmmakers was to prove the dangers of dogmatic belief taken to the extreme, as well as to report the case on screen as accurately as possible. Therefore, they didn’t have any opportunity to do that other than writing the script after the official documents of the court case.

Belief - documentary 2Due to its real story and the great acting, Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses is a highly disturbing watch, where the viewer is forced to see a young woman – who clearly was dealing with many severe issues – being tortured by people who were actually trying to help her.

My only issues with this documentary revolve around the way the re-enactment is shot. Long sequences, filmed in slo-mo, linger for too long over the ritual, making the documentary more exploitative and less informative, in my opinion. A few other scenes are made overdramatic to the point they can become annoying.

I also didn’t like the music choices for the most part, as they rely on stock horror flick sounds such as the piano and the violin.

Besides that, I strongly suggest you to check this documentary out if you’re interested in a real-life case of exorcism and are willing to question your own beliefs.

Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses                           8/10