'Coven' Explores an Uncommon Magic with Softness and Empathy

Directed by Rama Rau

BY Alisha MughalPublished May 8, 2023

As Canadian director Rama Rau's camera hovers above the green vastness of, in turn, Scotland and Romania — as hesitantly sweeping drone shots reveal swirling concentric circles in grass or brush, growing of habit as if respecting the earth's ancient scars — one can't help but feel the magic. There's something freighted about Rau's Coven, as though it carries more than secrets. But this is because it does; it's in the rushing air Rau captures caressing her subjects' faces as they gaze across the land or through forests, moving branches of trees to dance; it's in the earth that the women Rau follows pick their way through deliberately. With Coven, Rau has astonishingly captured something closer to hope than anything that has come before it. 

Rau deftly smuggles through this breathy and sighing documentary — ostensibly about modern-day witchcraft — a sober understanding not only of how dangerous it is to be a woman in the world, but also the power that is waiting to be reclaimed within this danger. Coven depicts what it looks like to exist in the present day in full possession of and in alignment with one's past and the world that houses us all. A deeply respectful documentary filmed with the same tenderness and love that it endeavours to convey, Coven is an unmissable and unignorable feminist force.  

Rau's empathetic gaze follows three young women at various points in their journeys of self discovery — Laura, Andra, and Toronto-based musician Ayo Leilani (also known as Witch Prophet) — as they discover and explain what it means to be a witch in the twenty-first century. Laura is a solitary witch working to better understand what being a witch means to her by tracing her family's history with witchcraft; her journey of self discovery takes her to Scotland and to Salem, Massachusetts, to various points in history that saw deadly persecution of women.

Andra, meanwhile, has been a practicing witch within a community of others for a while when we meet her, and Rau follows her to her home country of Romania as Andra determines what it means for her to grow in her practice and in herself. Ayo's story follows a trajectory that seems to fuse Andra's and Laura's. Ayo knew as a child that something witchy ran through her blood, and Rau shows us through the musician what it means to commingle past and present, witchcraft and music, to create something mightily beautiful.  

There is a deep sense of respect and honour in Coven. Rau, without ever entering frame, never seems to pass any judgement over the women she documents; rather she seems eager to learn alongside them, making and holding space for each of the women's discoveries, what they believe to be truth. There is not any contrivance or sensationalizing or even rationalizing on Rau's part as her camera sits in a room aglow with warm light as Laura undergoes a past life regression, or as Ayo receives a pregnant tarot reading from a priestess in New Orleans, or as Andra receives guidance in Romania from one of the most powerful witches in the world. The documentary carries not so much something sacred as it carries something like the world —  it depicts what it looks like to create hope, to honour the self through discovery, reckoning, and healing. 

Accordingly, the camera's gaze here is curious and cushioned, in the sense that Rau doesn't approach the three women with an already-formed and almost firm and concrete knowledge base, as if waiting for Laura, Andra, and Ayo to in turn discover what Rau already knows. In other words, Rau doesn't strive to have her subjects confirm certain notions about witchcraft she already possesses, in the manner that many formal documentaries tend to do, working and bending their subjects to fit the moulds of constrictive, preconceived notions and facile deductions. Rather, throughout Coven, Rau seems to be as open to learning and as sympathetic to and optimistic for answers as each of the three women she follows. Rau has us eagerly, though delicately, following where the women go, gauzily as the leaves sway on their branches with the wind, or how Andra's spirit rattle jangles when something magical is about. In this way, Coven is soft and kind, sympathetic and empathetic, invested and hopeful, forward moving and life affirming, wide and fluid. Ultimately, Rau's approach is the opposite of patriarchal, which is the approach that many traditional documentaries take, determined as they are to prove a certain and exclusionary, rigid point. 

Certainly, this means that Rau doesn't achieve, nor even strive toward, a strict and bloodless objectivity. But I would argue that no documentary, made as it is by fallible hands, ever achieves something austere and divorced from life and humanity, ever achieves that ideal of ascetic truth, that albatross of objectivity that so much of the patriarchal world is obsessed with delineating and exalting as though it were a lofty god. I would argue that Coven is deeply subjective, and for this reason it is deeply mired in humanity, and all the more close to something valuable, to human truth, than the endeavours of others. 

Coven is like the bedrock of a conversation, inviting questions and dialogue and development and modification of thought, accepting of the tribulations of life. The film is open to corrections and to the re-treading of paths, but most importantly it seems open to and in communion with the world, to something you can feel in your bones. This movie clings to me like the simultaneously rosy and sultry scent of incense because of how safe it feels, how gentle and warm Rau's cradling gaze is. Coven is perhaps one of the most kind, patient, life-affirming and feminist documentaries about what it means to be a witch, to be a woman, I have ever seen.

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