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By Merle Bertrand | June 1, 2005

It’s one of the most memorable scenes in all of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” A crowd of ignorant, bloodthirsty peasants has captured a suspected witch, an innocent woman whom they’ve clearly framed — “She turned me into a newt! I got better…” — in their lustful desire to burn her at the stake. As the hilarious scene plays out, King Arthur leads the gathered throng on a fractured bit of deductive “reasoning” which winds up with the defeated young “witch” resigned to her fate.

There’s nothing funny about the modern day accusations of witchcraft in the African country of Ghana, however, although the logic, validity and reasoning on display in “Witches in Exile” is about on a par with the stuff of Arthurian legend, Monty Python-style. “Witches in Exile” tells the shocking and tragic tales of a number of women accused of witchcraft in this backwards land. Ripped from their families and found guilty based on the flimsiest of evidence — or outright fabrications — these women face the “choice” of being stoned to death or forced into exile in one of several “witches camps” scattered throughout the country. Here they’re forced to rebuild their lives anew, shunned by friends and family alike forever.

Director Allison Berg explores this phenomenon from all angles. First and foremost, we meet the women inside these camps and learn how they deal with the unwelcome existence which has been foisted upon them. But Berg takes us deeper into this sociological nightmare, as we meet the brazen, unapologetic men responsible for the fates of their wives or family members. The film also introduces us to various elements of the government who struggle to get a grip on the problem, even while some of them admit to being firm believers in witchcraft, if not always in the camps themselves. Perhaps most surprising is learning how even some of the exiled women would rather stay in the camps than return to their homes, where they would live in constant fear for their lives amidst suspicious and hostile residents.

“Witches in Exile” is a remarkable example of what can happen when ignorance, poverty and superstition are allowed to fester. While offering few realistic solutions, this film does us all a service just be identifying the problem. For as nearly anyone would agree, identifying a problem is often the first step towards solving it.

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