Calum Henderson writes about (mainly terrible) television.

Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses docu-drama tells difficult story with clarity

It is still difficult to comprehend the case of Janet Moses, the 22-year-old Wainuiomata woman who died by drowning in an attempt by her family members to lift a makutu, or curse, in 2007.

The events of that week in October - and the subsequent High Court manslaughter trial of nine extended family members in 2009 - are given a thoughtful dramatic re-examination in TVNZ 1's most recent Sunday Theatre feature Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses.

Like last year's Sunday Theatre highlight The Monster of Mangatiti, Belief is a docudrama, combining dramatic re-enactments with real documentary interviews. The result is a perfectly-weighted and totally compelling piece of cinema which has the gut-wrenching tension and dread of a horror movie, while at the same time offering considered insights into how such a tragedy occurred.

Kura Forrester portrayed as Janet Moses (centre) surrounded by family in Wainuiomata in a scene from the docudrama Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses. Photo / Supplied
Kura Forrester portrayed as Janet Moses (centre) surrounded by family in Wainuiomata in a scene from the docudrama Belief: The Possession of Janet Moses. Photo / Supplied

Director David Stubbs does all this in a little over an hour, approaching the story in a way that is clinical and efficient, but determinedly open-minded.

It begins on a Saturday with the extended whanau celebrating her sister's 21st birthday at a hotel bar. Moses, played by Kura Forrester, is unusually quiet and withdrawn - her grandmother, to whom she was very close, had recently died. That, combined with relationship problems, would have been "significant stressors" according to forensic psychiatrist Dr Rees Tapsell, one of the film's interview subjects.

On Sunday things start getting worse. Moses is behaving erratically, convinced a white stone lion statue her sister had stolen weeks earlier from outside another hotel is possessed by some demonic spirit. "All of the evidence I saw suggested she was becoming psychotic, that she was having extreme changes in her mood," says Dr Tapsell.

She is taken to her grandfather's small flat and on Monday a tohunga is called. He blesses her with water and karakia are performed. The white stone lion is returned. Like in a horror movie things seems to be getting better, only to suddenly get a lot worse. The family begin the makutu lifting on Tuesday, gently singing the mantra: "Go with peace and love." By Wednesday that mantra has morphed into a foot-stomping chant.

While the idea of dramatic re-enactments might still evoke the hammy acting of old Crimewatch episodes, those in Belief - based on evidence that was given to or heard by the High Court - are unnervingly convincing. In particular, the performance of Kura Forrester as the possessed young woman is incredibly powerful, and Hariata Moriarty as her young relative, who was also subject to makutu, is perfect in her recreation of the girl's police interview.

A scene from the docu-drama Belief: The Posession of Janet Moses.
A scene from the docu-drama Belief: The Posession of Janet Moses.

As hysteria descends on the house, two things become clear. The first is that the family who performed the ritual were acting out of a deep and unmistakable sense of love; the second is that none of them really seemed to know what they were doing.

"There was a whole shift away from the spiritual structure of Maori society," cultural adviser Pouroto Ngaropo explains. "Now we are confronted with makutu, how well do we understand actually what's happening?"

The film grapples with the many ways of understanding what took place that week. We hear from both sides of the 2009 manslaughter trial: defence counsel Phil Mitchell, who says "they genuinely believed there was something very malignant and dangerous within her," and Crown prosecutor Grant Burston, who adds "you can't just act on bizarre beliefs and kill someone and nothing is done about it."

Then Tuhoe spokesman Tamati Cairns: "Makutu is not something that might be regarded as an oddity - it is simply part and parcel of a Maori understanding of life."

The death of Janet Moses is a sad, difficult story; Belief tells it with poise and clarity. "It still hurts today," says a family friend interviewed at the beginning. "It'll probably hurt forever, what happened to Janet."

- NZ Herald

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