When Mark Hayhurst set out to make a film about the Scottish witch-hunts of 1589-91, he couldn’t decide between documentary and drama. He chose both. The result is Witchcraze, a 60-minute production that combines fly-on-the-wall techniques with well-researched dramatic reconstructions.
“What I didn’t want to do is treat witchcraft as if it really existed,” Hayhurst says from London.
Instead of going for a spooky angle, Hayhurst wanted to convey the ordinariness of the story, a story of persecution that is as relevant today as it was in the 16th century.
“Although we no longer call them witches, the phenomenon still exists,” he says. “We no longer prosecute witches but we do periodically settle on a vulnerable minority and put the whole powers of the state and media on to them.”
In Witchcraze, the “state” is the dual forces of the monarchy and the church, represented by two of the film’s main characters; James Carmichael, the Minister of Haddington, and King James VI, of Scotland, who became James I of England.
As the famine-struck Scottish countryside was in the grips of a violent “witch craze”, Carmichael led a travelling commission to bring legal and religious authority to the witch-hunts. On his return from his wedding in Denmark, King James joined in, with increasing enthusiasm.
At the centre of the story is Agnes Sampson, a ritual healer, soothsayer and Catholic, who was arrested on suspicion of witchcraft and tortured. Sampson’s story is unremarkable, except that the king took an interest in her case.
“The supernatural enemy was speaking through her,” Hayhurst says. “In no other circumstances at that time would a peasant talk to a king.”
James spent several days interrogating Sampson, eventually extracting an extraordinary confession. The torture and interrogation scenes, shot in grainy and realistic detail, are grim. Hayhurst made his film well before news of modern torture emerged from Iraq. The graphic images from the Abu Ghraib prison, he says, taught him something of sustained cruelty.
“It’s the small things, which didn’t necessarily involve violence; the small indignities, which are another technique to break people down,” he says.
Modern camera technology persuades the viewer to accept the presence of a documentary crew at witch burnings. The protagonists do on-camera interviews, the cameras are hand-held and the lighting is natural.
Hayhurst admits he was worried history purists would pounce on perceived inconsistencies in his dialogue but, apart from one enthusiastic newspaper letter-writer, the film has been well received.
Witchcraze screens at 10.15pm on Sunday on the ABC.