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“I Was Trying to Illustrate What It Was Like to Lose My Mind”: Elizabeth Sankey on Her Tribeca-Premiering Essay Doc Witches


Witches, the sophomore feature from English filmmaker Elizabeth Sankey, poses an interesting hypothesis concerning the link between the English witch trials and maternal mental health. Sankey illustrates this correlation by utilizing filmic portrayals of sorceresses (from Häxan to The Craft) and “psychotic women” (from Rosemary’s Baby to Unsane), their historical accuracy and cultural relevance buttressed by insight from doctors, historians and those who’ve been diagnosed with postpartum mental illnesses.

Sankey is perfectly poised to tackle the topic given that she spent several months in a mother and baby psychiatric unit after experiencing severe postpartum anxiety and depression that made her a threat to her and her son’s safety. During her recovery, she reflected on how society has historically maligned women who don’t conform to perfect ideals of femininity and motherhood—oft-cast as “witches”—and why the weight of this apparent failure has shaped resulting stigmas around women’s psychiatric treatment. Sankey appears in on screen testimonies and provides intelligent narration throughout the film, conveying the inextricable personal lens of a film that also manages to unpack the overarching legacy of “monstrous” women.

I spoke with Sankey via Zoom ahead of her film’s Tribeca Festival premiere. Below, the filmmaker discusses her lifelong affinity for witches, culling clips from over 250 films and working with her husband, Jeremy Warmsley, on the original score. Witches will release via MUBI, which also produced it, in 2025.

Filmmaker: When did you know that you wanted to make a film about your experience with postpartum anxiety, and how did integrating horror films become an essential part of that concept?

Sankey: I had been in the psychiatric ward with my baby for eight weeks, and I got out in October or November. I had only been out for about a month, and I thought, “I’ve got to make something about this,” just as a way of processing what had happened. I was going to do an essay film, which is what I did with my first film, Romantic Comedy. I’ve always wanted to do something about witches. I felt a lot of affinity with witches during my illness and afterwards because I was really struggling to make peace with the thoughts that I had and the person that I’d been. I found a lot of safety in narratives of witches, these women that are mad, strange and weird. That really resonated with me, so it just seemed to make sense. When I started the film, I was still very much mad and in recovery, so it’s weird watching it now.

The horror film aspect started because I wanted to have a boundary on what I could use in terms of film clips. Then the more I researched the history of these mental illnesses, the more I realized that there was actually this really surprising, strong link between witches, maternal mental health and women’s mental health in general. With the horror films, I was trying to illustrate what it was like to lose my mind. When it was happening, it did feel very cinematic. The only references I had [for that experience] were horror films, and it felt like reality had just sort of broken apart. I thought that was an amazing-slash-terrifying opportunity to try and depict that as a filmmaker. As we say in the film, a few of us felt like we were in horror films.

I also found that I was drawn to films from the ’60s and ’70s. They’re a lot more on the nose, but weirdly that’s actually how it felt. It didn’t feel subtle and dark, it felt highly intense and saturated.

Filmmaker: As you said just a minute ago, you previously directed and edited Romantic Comedy, and I wonder how the process of culling scenes from films was similar or different this time around?

Sankey: I guess the process was similar, but what I was looking for was very different. With Romantic Comedy, I was looking for romantic comedies throughout the ages, as far back as I could go—for  weird ones, strange ones, funny ones, classics, perfect examples. Whereas with this, I was looking at films that depicted an aspect of mental illness for women in general. I had a massive list of films. I got hold of them, then I would just watch and cut clips from them. I have these big folders on Premiere that just say things like “woman crying,” “psychiatric ward,” “hospitals,” “witch.” There were also more abstract things, as well, like “fire,” “moon,” “sea” — anything that could be visually arresting as a metaphor. I really loved the process because I was watching a lot of films that I hadn’t seen before and was finding these threads in these films that were absolutely amazing. There’s one called The Snake Pit, which I hadn’t seen and I think is from the ’40s. It’s about a woman going into a psychiatric ward. It was fascinating to see what a psychiatric ward was like at that time and also how little has changed. A lot of it is just her internal monologue, you know, “Why am I here? How long have I been here?” Because time moves very strangely there. I was just looking for anything that helped depict what I had been going through.

Filmmaker: When exactly did you begin to feel that the historical legacy of witches, not just their filmic depictions, was something that resonated with your story?

Sankey: It’s hard for me to remember because a lot of things were happening. As I say, I was mad at that point—I mean, I still am mad—but I think I was really keen to find a specific link between maternal mental health illness, female mental health illness and witch trials. I knew that there was a link between witches and the way that women were depicted in cinema, but I didn’t know that there was necessarily a historical link. I also had this thing when I was ill where I felt very much like there were two versions of me, a good version and a bad version. It was something that me and my husband talked about very explicitly, like, “Oh, that bad one’s back. I hate that.” Again, that was something that I knew from popular culture of women being portrayed as bad or good, and sometimes quite literally. Then I started reading the testimonies of women that had been on trial. These women are talking and you know exactly what they’re talking about. You felt the same thing. I have a very big Google Doc where I put everything, all of my notes and stuff, and there are exclamation marks all over it where I was just thinking, “Oh my God, I had the exact same thought as this woman did in 1640.” I realized that this has been happening forever and that there has been a very distinct knock-on effect.

I could talk about that for days. I mean, in America, you have been so massively affected by it to a very damaging degree. It’s slightly better in England, but not that much better. But  what’s happened to women in America is unbelievable.

Filmmaker: The contrast between England and America is something I was definitely thinking about while watching the film. But to go back and address something that I really took away from the film is your hypothesis about how postpartum mental health issues could have had an enormous effect on the witch trials. I couldn’t believe that wasn’t a theory I’d heard of before. You hear about moldy bread, but was there a lot of writing or scholarship on this that you looked to?

Sankey: There was a reformed witchfinder in the 16th century. There’s one case where he realized that this woman was saying that she was a witch when he knew that she wasn’t. He could tell that she was having a terrible time mentally. He wrote about it and this case actually stopped him from continuing his work of hunting down witches. People just didn’t really think about it like that, especially because there was a lot of money to be made from catching “witches.” They were also rounding up women who were healers and midwives in general, who you would have once been able to talk to about those thoughts and feelings you’re having.

Also I think most people who have illnesses as severe as mine, who end up in psychiatric wards, are not in the position to talk, write or make films about it. I mean, there have obviously been amazing books written about these things, but I think that connection hadn’t quite been made before.

It was funny talking to Marion [Gibson], who’s a historian in the film. I was on the phone to her and said, “There seem to be these women who are confessing. Is that a voluntary confession?” She said, “No women were tortured, so every single woman who confessed in England confessed voluntarily. We don’t know why.” I was like, “I know why!” I don’t think it’s fair to say that every single woman that did that had mental health issues, but just so much of what you read is women feeling really ashamed, guilty and bad about themselves. Feeling so much pressure. We think back then as being a very puritanical society, but I would say it’s just as puritanical now. It’s just that puritanism has been dressed up in a different way. You know, it’s the wellness industry, the diet industry, these pressures still exist. The fact that women’s rights are being taken away in terms of their own bodies, all of this stuff is still happening.

Filmmaker: Speaking of the women who appear in your film, how did you convince them, many of whom have never publicly spoken about their experiences, to tell their story on camera?

Sankey: Dr. Trudi [Seneviratne] reveals something that happened to her that she’d never revealed before. She told me about that on the phone, and I said, “Look, you don’t need to talk about this in film. This is just you and me having this conversation.” But I think she was ready to talk about it. I just couldn’t believe that someone in her position—such an eminent psychiatrist herself, someone who has treated women with these mental illnesses for an entire career, has raised so much money, works with Princess Kate Middleton, is one of the most prominent spokespeople for maternal mental health illness—had so much shame and guilt and didn’t want to have to acknowledge it herself. A lot of the other [subjects] were people that I knew or had met during my illness and they were very keen to talk about it. David Emson was the only one who wasn’t sure at first. I realized that he lived really close to me, so I wrote him a letter. I think when he read the first few sentences, he was like, “Oh my God, no, I’m not doing this. I’m not talking about this again.” Then by the end of the letter, he was like, “Okay, let’s do it.” He was brilliant and wonderful. But I think the fact that I was coming at it from having had this experience, we all did feel very close to each other. There was no reticence. Everyone’s seen the film, everyone’s watched their parts. Again, throughout the whole process, I said, “Look, if at the end of the line you’re like, ‘Don’t even put me in it,’ that’s fine.’”

Filmmaker: A bit more on the formal side, I love the sets where you filmed the interview segments. How did you visualize, build and transform these sets throughout the project?

Sankey: I loved those sets so much. I knew I was going to be doing filmed interviews, and I wanted to do them in a place that felt a bit special. I wanted the film to look a bit like a spell book, so I was thinking about different aspects of witch culture, both in cinema and in real-life. The shape of the sets is based on the room that I had at the ward. It went from this really scary place, the most terrifying place in the world, to somewhere that I really didn’t want to leave. I felt very comfortable there and made it my own. It was a really special room to me. I think that we originally had five sets, then we realized we weren’t going to be able to do that many, so we then brought it down. My production designer, May Davies, did all of it with just her and two other people. She’s absolutely incredible. The idea was that one [set] is a disturbing hospital room, the way that it felt when I walked in. Another one was the “teen witch” room; I wanted to be Sabrina when I grew up, having a bedroom like that was my dream. The last one is the witch cottage, which I think is actually probably my favorite of the three. At the end, I came to this place of acceptance of the witch, the darkness, inside of me. The whole process of the film was for me to accept that this did happen to me. I did have those thoughts, I did have that darkness, rage and madness.

Filmmaker: Is it right that your husband Jeremy did the music for this film?

Sankey: Yes, he did!

Filmmaker: I know you’re a musician in your own right, but how did he come on board and what was it like collaborating with him?

Sankey: It’s very kind of you to call me a musician. I really don’t think of myself as one. I think of myself as a singer who just sort of latched on to him [laughs]. Jeremy is incredible. He can play every single instrument, apart from the banjo, but he insists on having a banjo anyway. We keep the banjo in the attic because I do not want to have him walking around the house playing the banjo at me [laughs]. But yeah, he is incredibly talented. He’s done composer work for a very long time now. It just made sense and we really love working together. He actually also co-produced the film with my other producers, Manon [Ardisson] and Chiara [Ventura], so it was always going to be him doing the score. We were able to have a really good dialogue about it. I was like, “You have to read loads of stuff about witches, witchcraft and the culture,” and he did. Quite quickly, we realized that the female voice was gonna be a really important theme. He recorded with some amazing singers in London and composed this wonderful bit. It came together really quickly, to be honest. We’ve been in a band [called Summer Camp] for so long now that we know how to communicate really well together. And he’s very talented, thank God [laughs]. Imagine if he wasn’t!

Filmmaker: I know that you said that everybody in the film has seen their parts already, but have you shown it to friends and family yet? If you have, what has their reaction been?

Sankey: I haven’t, actually. I think they’re gonna come and see it when we show at some point in London, maybe. My mother-in-law is going to be in New York with us [during the Tribeca premiere], and she said she doesn’t want to see it at the moment. I think that’s fine, she wants to watch it in her own time. Friends haven’t seen it, either. We showed it to some people really early on when we had the edit, just to get feedback, and people were really lovely about it. A lot of people have sent me photos of themselves crying, which is funny, because I don’t really want anyone to have a bad time watching the film. I actually am quite a fun person! It’s kind of weird when people do have strong reactions to it, because I no longer have a big, strong reaction to that time in my life.

Filmmaker: Another very important aspect of the film is, obviously, your relationship with your son. What do you hope that his relationship with this film and your story is as he matures and gets to know your background a little bit more?

Sankey: That was something that we thought about a lot. There was a point in the process where I wasn’t as explicit in the film as I am now about the thoughts that I had towards my son. It basically took my producers saying,  “Look, if you’re going to go there, you have to go there.” I knew that that was true, but I was trying to protect myself and also him. I don’t know if my son’s ever going to watch it, because I’m his mom and I’m already so annoying to him, so I can’t imagine that he’ll be jazzed to watch it [laughs]. But we talk about it a lot. We talk about me being in a hospital and him being there with me. We’ve been back to the unit where I was. I think for me, it’s always about honesty and openness. It basically is like, I’ve been the worst mom ever. That’s how I feel. I have thought about the worst things. Anything better than that is good. At the same time, I want to make sure that is the only period in his life where he ever, from my actions, feels anything like that. Even though he wasn’t aware of it happening, I really want that to be the only time where he is in a situation where he is potentially unsafe with me. It’s weird, because on one hand, I don’t give a fuck anymore. I let him eat sugar, he can do whatever he wants as long as he’s happy. He’s my baby, it’s fine. On the other hand, I am going to make sure that he always has an opportunity to talk about his mental health, that he’s emotionally in a very safe place with us, that he never feels anything negative about the environment in which he grows up. I don’t know if I would have been like that if this hadn’t happened. I think I would have been a different parent.

Filmmaker: Is working with footage in this way something that will continue to interest you and influence your filmmaking, or is there anything else you’re looking to tackle in the future?

Sankey: I do love working with archival footage, but I’m so keen to make a narrative film, but probably one based on a world or experience that I know really well. I love the research and development process. I do have a few films that I’m thinking about potentially making, but I also love docs and I would love to do another. But I think with docs, you have to wait for something to be good enough for you to spend that amount of time on. I didn’t really watch that many docs growing up, I always watched fiction movies, so that’s what I wanna do next.

Filmmaker: You can definitely tell that you have an encyclopedic knowledge of film and an appreciation for narrative in general. Out of curiosity, how many hours did you spend editing Witches?

Sankey: I don’t know the number. There’s definitely over 100 films [sampled], and I edited even more than that. Hang on, do you know what? I can find out for you. So, I edited or looked at about 250 films. I watched all of them and then began cutting at the same time, clipping bits out. It’s like three hours to do that, so multiply that by 250. It was staggering, it was like three years. I just really love doing it. As you’re doing it, you’re realizing things. It was a wonderful, healing space to spend time in while I was recovering, to be surrounded by these women who were crazy, didn’t fit in and that society had sort of cast aside. I cried a lot at my desk. I felt like I was making my own scrapbook of the kind of woman I wanted to be moving forward, or who I wanted to be, in terms of motherhood and also my own existence. It was really, really therapeutic, actually.

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