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#HotDocs23 Review: Coven

April 28, 2023

By John Corrado

★★★ (out of 4)

The 2023 Hot Docs Film Festival runs from April 27th to May 7th in Toronto, more information on tickets and showtimes can be found right here.

There has been somewhat of a modern resurgence in witchcraft and Wicca from women who see reclaiming these ancient spiritual practises as part of a feminist political identity to honour the women who were historically killed for holding these beliefs. In her surprisingly involving documentary Coven, Canadian filmmaker Rama Rau follows three young women in Toronto who feel a kinship with witches as they explore their identities.

Ayo Leilani is a musician who goes by the stage name Witch Prophet. Born in East Africa to Christian parents, who didn’t take well to her expressing interest in the occult, Ayo is exploring who she might have been in a past life (a dream guides her toward the possibility that she was actually Russian mystic Helena Blavatsky). Andra Maria Zlatesc is an artist who fled Romania as a child with her parents, but has always felt drawn to her home country’s rich supernatural folklore. Laura Hokstad identifies as a “solitary witch” in search of an accepting coven, and has become fascinated by her family lineage.

Paired with Rau’s observational, non-judgemental approach to her subjects, Coven is as much about exploring these ancient forms of spirituality as it is about finding connections to the past. The most interesting and compelling through-line of the film is Laura tracing her ancestry back to the Salem Witch Trials and even earlier to witches in Scotland. Meanwhile, Ayo travels to New Orleans to explore ancient voodoo practices that tie into her African heritage, while Andra travels back to her home country to find Mihaela Minca, said to be the most powerful witch in Romania.

They are searching for a place where they can fit in and aren’t judged for their beliefs. Laura muses that she had to switch schools because she was being bullied by kids who accused her of being lesbian and being a witch, but she begrudgingly admits that they were right; she is lesbian and she is a witch. Some see witchcraft as a means to engage with spirituality while rejecting the strictness of Western, organized religion, though it’s not always so cut and dry. In the early scenes, Laura visits a coven, where the high priestess explains that Wicca is not a democracy but a “benevolent dictatorship.”

I was raised Catholic with the belief that witchcraft is not something to be messed with, so I’m surprised by how engaging I found this film to be. It simply works as an involving and often thoughtful exploration of ancestry, and the surprising connections we hold to the past and natural world.

Screenings: Friday, April 28th, 8:45 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 1; Friday, May 5th, 6:00 PM at TIFF Bell Lightbox 2. Tickets can be purchased here, and the film will also be streaming online across Canada from May 5th to 9th.

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