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'Coven' documentary: An exploration of witchcraft and women finding their power

"I want to give voices to people who normally don't have voices. That's kind of my mission to myself," filmmaker Rama Rau said

While witchcraft has been scrutinized and criticized for centuries, Rama Rau's documentary Coven (part of Toronto's Hot Docs festival) explores the lives of three women who identify as witches, evolving in their spirit and feeling more empowered.

“I grew up in India and for us, in India, the supernatural has never been something different, it was always part of our everyday lives,” Rau told Yahoo Canada. “In fact, even when we were young girls, we were always told that there's a strong female spirit protecting us, or we would go to temples and there would be shamanistic rituals that we would observe.”

“So I was thinking of what kind of film I would like to make next and it was really about, what do young women feel these days? I know that with the patriarchy and monotheistic religions, we're all looking for, I think, the power we lost in some way as women. I thought, wouldn't it be interesting to see if there are modern-day witches and see how I could follow them.”

Coven documentary from director Rama Rau
Coven documentary from director Rama Rau

Laura Hokstad refers to herself as a "baby witch" and a solitary witch in the film, meaning she had been doing her practice by herself, but in this film we see her explore the coven experience. The documentary also follows her to Scotland, as Hokstad discovers that two of her ancestors were accused of witchcraft.

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Ayo Leilani, known as Witch Prophet, is a Canadian singer who staring exploring the occult as a teen. In Coven, she tells a story about how she was accused her of being an Obeah woman, meaning "a Caribbean sorceress." The film follows Leilani to New Orleans, where she seeks advice and mentorship, and learns about the history of the Black Witches movement.

Coven also follows Andra Maria Zlatescu to Romania, the country she left with her parents when she was just a child. Zlatescu expands her knowledge of the witches of Romania and explores a famously haunted forest to reconnect and empower herself.

Rau explained that most people included in the documentary were "very open" to being filmed, but there were some restrictions with the covens.

“Sometimes the actual covens would say, ‘No you can't film this. No, this is a very secret ritual,'" Rau said.

“That's OK because this film has never been about hidden camera. I don't make films like that. I always like to respect people who might film and they have to understand, as much as I do, what the story is about, what the filming is about.”

The director revealed that in Romania, there was a different situation where Rau refused to film a particular moment.

“There was animal cruelty, I absolutely put my foot down," Rau said. "I said, ‘No, you will not sacrifice any animal for my film.’"

"I was very certain about that and they were a little taken aback because I don't think anyone's told them that."

Coven documentary from director Rama Rau
Coven documentary from director Rama Rau

'I really honestly think that magic exists, we just have to look for it'

When it comes to Rau's approach to Coven, the film never really strives to convince the audience that witchcraft should be believed without question. It's more about the personal exploration of empowerment for these women and how our society has an extensive history of not wanting women to have power, even wanting to take that away.

“For me, every documentary I make is like a PhD because of the amount of research you put in,” Rau said. “It teaches me about storytelling. It teaches me about human beings. It teaches me about psychology, so many things.”

“I think documentaries are such a tough but satisfying genre to work in because you absolutely must be prepared. You absolutely must know where you want your story to go. … I want to give voices to people who normally don't have voices. That's kind of my mission to myself.”

When it comes to what Rau wants people to take away from this documentary, the filmmaker is hoping people "don't continue to think in terms of binaries."

“I think Christianity, to a lot, has helped in that. Good, evil. Black, white. Male, female," Rau said. "I don't think the world is so set in its ways at all.”

“I think there's a spectrum for everything and I think this film especially hopes to explore some of those spectrums of reality and supernatural and magic. I really honestly think that magic exists, we just have to look for it. We can find magic in anything we do. ... It's all part of who we are and part of the rhythm of the universe. If I can open people's minds just a little bit, … that would make me very happy.”

Coven is available for Canadians to stream through the Hot Docs online platform until May 9.