If you were a little weirdo like me growing up, you probably had an occult shop that you secretly frequented whenever you had some pocket money to spare. At first, it was the mystery and the magic that lured me in ⸺ candles, incense, crystals, spell books. But it soon gave me a sense of control over my life. I felt powerful, like I had a say in what happened to me, which in my tween years was invaluable. While I was certainly overestimating my witchy abilities, the practice was a refuge when I needed it the most.
That power is at the heart of director Rama Rau’s new documentary, Coven, which will have its world premiere on April 28 at the Hot Docs Film Festival in Toronto. The film follows three witches, Laura, Andra, and Ayo, working to redefine and reclaim what it means to be a witch in today’s world. With trips to Romania, Scotland, New Orleans, and Salem, Rau captures their individual journeys towards connection and self-discovery.
When casting the film, Rau interviewed dozens of witches before she landed on Laura, Andra, and Ayo. “I remember meeting Laura, and she was a baby witch who had no idea where her journey was going,” Rau says. “Andra was going to Romania. She was in search of something and I think that’s what I look for when I cast my characters. They have to be on a quest for a story to happen.”
Like all of Rau’s films, both fiction and non-fiction, Coven is told through a feminist lens. With witchcraft’s long history of persecution under patriarchal systems, it only made sense that Rau wanted to make a film about it. “It all stems from men’s fear. I think women have been quiet and repressed for so long and it’s time to tell our stories, our way. I knew I wanted to speak to women’s power,” explains Rau. “I want women to see this film and feel empowered and that your story matters no matter who you are. Every film I make, that’s my aim.”
Toronto-based singer Ayo Leilani, a.k.a. Witch Prophet, began exploring the occult when she was a teenager, but didn’t always know where she fit in because of how whiteness is often centred in these spaces. “She’s always found that it’s been very Eurocentric,” Rau explains. “So when she got to New Orleans, she lost it. The way she cried was just heartwrenching. I had no idea she would cry. She had no idea she would cry. Her arc is shorter, but I think it has far more depth because she gains this sense of who she has been all of this time.”
Part of what makes Coven so compelling is how personal all three stories are, and how Rau handles each with care and compassion. “It’s a very sensitive kind of storytelling. That’s the thing about documentary that no one teaches you. You have to be really respectful of people who allow you into their lives,” explains Rau. “It’s this mutual consent. You need a lot of patience and trust. I always tell my subjects that I will leave if they want me to. I think it’s very important to know that the camera doesn’t have to record everything.”
While there are many intense scenes throughout the documentary, there’s one where Laura undergoes hypnosis to uncover a painful past life experience that feels particularly high-stakes. “I remember doing the hypnosis. I was sitting there and thinking, I hope I’m not putting her in any danger. She was going through layers and layers, and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. I was really scared for her. She was so vulnerable in that moment,” says Rau.
In recent years, there has been a renewed interest in witchcraft, especially among young women. Judging by TikTok alone, there are 41 billion views of videos with the tag #witchtok. Anecdotally, even Rau’s 20-year-old niece participates in a coven where she lives in New York City. When she learned that, Rau knew that her film would resonate with a lot of folks. In a society that is very individualistic and detached from nature, a return to both community and our planet feels hopeful. “If you take any kind of paganism or Wicca, it always comes back to respecting the Earth,” Rau says. “When we were filming in that magical Romanian forest, Andra says ‘I’m here to sing to the land and her dying’ and I still get goosebumps. When she sang, it was just beautiful and haunting.”
That wasn’t the only haunting moment, though. You can’t make a film about witches and expect nothing otherworldly to happen. “In the hotel in Salem, Laura, our cameraman, Pat, and I definitely felt a presence. I felt something tug on my sheet, ” Rau recalls. “We asked the front desk and they confirmed that the hotel is known to be haunted.”
Their visit to Stonehenge, however, was more spiritual than spooky. “I’ve been obsessed with Stonehenge forever. To be allowed to film there for two hours without other people around was just beautiful. Standing there in that magic circle, feeling the vibrations of the earth,” Rau says.
“A blackbird flew in and as Hindus in India, we believe that a blackbird is the soul of your ancestor. I told Laura that this is how the land blesses you and this is the universe telling you that you’re going to be okay. I firmly believe that magic is part of everyday life. You just have to look for it.”
Coven will screen at the Hot Docs Film Festival on April 28 and May 5, and will stream online from May 5-9. Ticket holders can have their tarot cards read by two of the film’s subjects before each of the in-person screenings. The screening on Friday, May 5 will be followed by a musical performance by Witch Prophet.