Thinking with His House

When we started to watch His House (dir. Remi Weekes) on Netflix I immediately dismissed it as a film sensationalising a harrowing refugee narrative to translate PTSD into a shallow horror film… ‘shall we watch something else?’ … ‘But it gets 100% on Rotten Tomatoes!’ my partner replied. There are caveats to this ‘review’ — I found that the film does to an extent sensationalise the boat crossing by using it as fodder to shock its viewers, but I found several redeeming features.

**Spoilers — I describe the end of the film**

As we made our way through my comment about PTSD began to feel quite ignorant — that I was trying to explain the story (away) through a kind of (amateur) psychology. Instead, I found that the film manages to hold together, and to take seriously, a cosmopolitics of both witchcraft and what could be read through a ‘scientific’ lens as PTSD (indeed most other reviews I have read explain the story as an exploration of this subject). Isabelle Stengers’ (2010, 2011) notion of cosmopolitics comes as a reaction to modern sciences’ tendency to authoritatively dismiss other kinds of knowledge as irrational or erroneous. The protagonists — Bol and Rial Majur — experience ghosts resembling figures from flashbacks from their traumatic crossing, and an ‘apeth’, or witch haunting them because of (at the time undisclosed) ‘thing’ that they had previously stolen — something that they must return. Throughout the film, the witch begins to do actual harm to Bol, becoming undeniably real, and propelling him to damage the house that they have been provided by the local authority (which we come to understand is somewhere in Essex). Interestingly the witch only ‘comes for’ Bol, and Rial appears at ease, allowing the witch and ghosts to accompany her in her everyday life — she explains ‘after what I have seen, how could I be afraid of a ghost?’

Bol at first tries to fight the witch with a hammer and by re-wiring the electrics in the house (to illuminate the dark corners where the ghosts lurk). The couple are eminently capable — fixing the dilapidated house with few resources, and cooking meals with the unfamiliar ingredients provided to them. This is somewhat refreshing for this kind of narrative, and this capability seems at odds with the local authority workers who seem to be committed to rules, incapable of critical thought, and with little compassion (apart from one character). In the film there is an ongoing tension around notions of integration, whereby Bol wants to change (to eat with a fork, at a table, join in with football chants), whereas Rial tends towards her own traditions, not wanting to simply over-write the past.

When Bol realises that fighting the witch is futile he attempts to get away, asking this council worker to re-house them. Eventually Bol realises that the witch will not leave without getting what they came for, he decides that he must sacrifice his flesh to appease them (this particular ‘zombie’ character who comes to take Bol towards the end is rendered comedically badly). When the apath comes to take Bol, Rial kills it, and they are able to briefly see their ‘daughter’ Nyagak, who we come to understand was taken by Bol so that they would be given a place on a bus escaping from their village in the South Sudan.

In the final scene (and the main reason I liked the film) the council workers are inspecting the house after the witch has been killed by Rial, and the couple have begun to repair the damage. The council worker asks ‘has the witch gone now?’ Though this could be read as a sarcastic comment, to me the question comes across as genuine — he seems at this point to take the proposition of the witch extremely seriously. ‘Rial killed it’, Bol answers, which seems to satisfy the council worker. This simple question at once brings the two worlds together and allows them to interoperate. It seems that the council worker is able to shift his thinking, to accept the truth of the apath, and to himself ‘integrate’ into the belief system.