New Documentary Follows Three Millennial Witches Reclaiming Traditions & Their Power

Ayo Leilani (R) aka Witch Prophet

Witches, priestesses, Obeah… every society has its words for women with perceived supernatural power. The words can convey reverence, or hatred.

In director Rama Rau’s ‘Coven‘, three women who’ve come to identify as witches, seek to examine their past and present with similar goals. All three seek mentors and people like themselves, and travel in far-flung directions for answers.

Ayo Leilani, a.k.a. Witch Prophet, is a Canadian singer, of East African descent, raised in Toronto by devoutly Christian parents, who began exploring the occult as a teen. Jamaicans she knew accused her of being an Obeah woman (a Caribbean sorceress), but their fear led her to a Jamaican guru who counseled her on her abilities and then disappeared.

Laura Hokstad, a “solitary witch” in Toronto, seeks both the “coven” experience and an exploration of her heritage. She travels to Scotland to discover that two of her ancestors were women accused of witchcraft (one of them in Salem, Mass.). She, it seems, is carrying on a family tradition.

And artist/witch Andra Maria Zlatescu, who left Romania as a child with her parents, travels to the outskirts of Bucharest to meet with Mihaela Minca, reputedly Eastern Europe’s most powerful witch, and her witch-clan family. There she is taken to a reputedly magical forest to commune with spirits and reconnect with the forces that empower her.

The experiences are as different as the people involved. Covens can be full of rules and demands, or as free as the spirits of the participants. But the lesson of women’s empowerment – and its exponential growth when they act together – connects their journeys.

“Witch hunts have always been about men’s fear of women. Making this film is a necessary act, so women can take back their power and re-tell their stories with magic, language and memory,” said Director Rama Rau in a press release.

‘Coven’ is set to have its World Premiere on April 28 at Hot Docs, playing at the TIFF Lightbox theater, and we had the chance to speak with both Rama Rau and Ayo Leilani about what they wanted to share with audiences about witches and their presence in the world today.

Director Rama Rau

When did you first become interested in the topic of witches and what made you decide to make this documentary?

Growing up in India, I always felt close to the supernatural as there was no real line drawn between the natural and other worlds. We were told as young girls that a strong female spirit protected us, no matter where we went. We attended shamanistic rituals in temples. I was always fascinated with magic and tales from King Arthur. Making this film for me, is an expression of all that but also a look into what young women are feeling today – everywhere, I meet women who are feeling a need for an alternative spiritual experience, a way of taking back the power they have lost. And this film is an exploration of that.  

How did you get connected to your featured characters and what drew you to their stories?

We told everyone we knew that we were looking to make a film about witches. We met with a high priestess – Anne-Marie who met with us and told us a lot about wicca and allowed us to meet her Coven. That’s how we met Andra. Laura was a friend’s friend, at that time, a baby witch who was in search of a higher spirituality.

As for Aya Leilani, Witch Prophet, I knew I wanted a woman of color and I was searching for a very long time. I stumbled upon her music first and then when I googled her, I was thrilled to discover she is a hip hop artist who is also a practicing witch. I like to meet my potential characters first and see how open they are, to us, the film crew and to the camera. If I find their stories compelling, I know they will be featured in my film.   

Andra Zlatescu | Image Credit Jason Providence for Storyline.
Laura Hokstad | Image Credit: Stephanie de Bem for Storyline

There is so much to learn from each of their journeys, what things did you learn from them during the process of filming?

I learnt about the environment, about tarot and how to read it, about different practices and how to respect them. I learnt that the more you think you know, the more there is to learn. 

What were some of the challenges of making ‘Coven‘?

I think the biggest challenge we had was to find the right characters for the film. I didn’t want this to be a pop-culture-y kind of film, I wanted it to have a depth, an intensity, that would express the very real anxiety that women are going through right now. So I really wanted to find characters that are diverse, interesting, articulate and going through a search for something larger than themselves. Finding the right character is always the biggest challenge of any film. 

The theme of women’s empowerment connects all of your characters. What do you want audiences to know about empowerment when they watch ‘Coven‘?

I want people to understand how the power was lost in the generations that have gone before us and how women are taking it back. I want people to think about how patriarchy and Christianity has weakened women’s power and how all this feeds into where we find ourselves in the world today.  

‘Coven’ director Rama Rau

The idea of women taking back their power can be a threat to men. Why do you think this is still pervasive today, not just among witches but any woman in power?

Of course, a powerful woman always feels like a threat to most men. Witchcraft is about marginalizing strong women. But, for any woman in power, this is a useful tool, to know that it threatens men and knowing that doesn’t mean that we should hide our light, just because it makes some insecure men feel threatened. 

If there is one main message or thought you’d like audiences to leave with after watching ‘Coven’, what would it be?

We are all one, we just have different backgrounds, cultures and experiences and if we can reclaim our past stories and powers, we can see that there really is no difference between all of us.

Ayo Leilani aka Witch Prophet

Ayo Leilani aka Witch Prophet

What initially made you want to be part of Coven and share your story?

I was contacted by Rama about being in her film because she wanted to include the viewpoint and practices of a Black witch, and when she researched online she came across me. I love everything magic and metaphysical so getting an opportunity to share my story and learn more with the Black Witch University in New Orleans was very enticing.

How has your background growing up in a Christian environment impacted your journey today as a witch?

Growing up in the church helped me understand the strength and value of prayer. It also helped to make me realize the similarities within religions, the occult and science, pushing me towards learning as much as I can about our full potential and power as humans as well as the true meaning of life.

There are so many misconceptions about witches even today. What do you hope to dispel by sharing your story?

I hope to dispel the tainted and negative imagery that comes to mind when people say/think ‘witch’. I want people to see that belief in magic/other and the journey towards inner wisdom is not inherently evil.

Rama Rau, and Jason Providence | Image Credit Stephanie de Bem for Storyline.

Can you tell us about your exploration of the occult as a teen, and what you discovered about yourself during this time?

As an intuitive, lucid, prophetic dreamer and astral projector I researched and bought many books on dreams and the power of the human mind after stumbling upon an Occult store in my neighbourhood. Through this, I discovered that my talents were not considered the norm. 

Why do you think there is still so much societal fear about women in power, especially women of color?

The short answer? White Supremacy. 

How important was it for you to find your community as a witch, and how would you encourage other young witches to find community?

Community helps build, protect, and teach so it’s very important for me to continue this path to find those of like mind and spirit. My experience has shown me that the right people will show up at the right time and until they do, continue focusing on your craft and learning as much as you can.

What message or thoughts do you want audiences to leave with after watching Coven?

I hope this film helps to normalize the idea of spirit, magic, and intuition. I hope it helps to awaken the curiosity to learn more without fear of judgment. I hope this film shows the connection within the human spirit.

‘Coven’ Premieres on April 28th at TIFF. You can learn more about the film and future screenings by visiting the website. Follow Witch Prophet on Instagram, and see more of Rama Rau’s work by clicking HERE.

‘Coven’ poster

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