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Hot Docs: 'Coven' Director Rama Rau On Empathetic Filmmaking and the Power of Women

Witch Prophet (left), main film subject with Queen Erzulie (right) in New Orleans.

In a scene about halfway through Canadian documentarian Rama Rau’s Coven, we watch with bated breath as Laura, one of the young witches whose naissance Rau’s lens charts, undergoes a past-life regression. It’s a simultaneously tender and frightening scene — Laura’s body is before us, but her mind travels to various pivotal moments in the past, moving first to the witch trials in Salem, Massachusetts, and then further back in time to the trials in Scotland. At both times, Laura looks from the eyes of an ancestor, a woman persecuted and prosecuted, eventually killed, under suspicion of witchcraft.

Coven is a delicate-as-gossamer documentary that follows three Ontarian women — Laura, Andra, and musician Ayo Leilani (also known as Witch Prophet) — as they discover and reckon with what it means and looks like to be a witch in modern day patriarchal society. Even more than that, though, Rau’s documentary is patiently attentive and delicately, respectfully curious as it follows the three women into the world, open to discovery and learning as the women themselves are, almost functioning to delineate what it looks like to craft a documentary with empathy.

Laura is endlessly vulnerable in the above-described scene — lying on a bed covered in a light blanket, her eyes are closed, squeezed shut, and she is bathed in soft light as if from a candle. We watch as tears trail down the sides of her face, into her hair.

Rama Rau

For Rau, witnessing this scene in real time was one of her more bizarre experiences, she tells me over Zoom. “I have been through a lot of really bizarre experiences because I'm a documentary filmmaker,” she says. “I've talked to brokers who work illegally. I've been in riots in India, I've been thrown out of places. I've been almost arrested, and [I’ve] run from cops. But this, for me, [was different]. I [felt] such a sense of wanting to protect her,” she says.

It’s a deeply intimate scene whose heft the viewer can’t help but feel in their bones. For Laura doesn’t just describe what the women from her family see as they approach their final moments at the hands of an exacting and panicking judiciary, she also feels and describes feeling what the women feel: the fear, sadness, horror at the fact of their imminent death. And Rau documents it all, while witnessing it alongside us.

“I remember sitting in that room, we were so quiet,” she says. “And I was like, ‘I can’t believe we are filming this, what right do I have?’ You almost feel intrusive. [...] What if something happens to her?” Rau recalls wondering. “What if she goes so deep inside that I can’t bring her out? These are the responsibilities of the documentary filmmaker,” she explains.

In speaking with Rau, it is evident that she is deeply sensitive to her privilege and responsibility as a documentarian; aware that there are many ways for a filmmaker to breach boundaries, she seems to strive toward that mode of conduct that places her subjects’ comfort and safety first. To have been able to bring us the scene of Laura’s past-life regression, to have been allowed into that moment by the young woman, Rau knew she first needed to build a level of trust between her lens and Laura, to reach the point “where she trusts me so much that she's going through this and she's allowing the camera to see her cry,” Rau explains. “None of us were unaware of the responsibility.”

The documentarian’s responsibility is something that Rau wishes was foremost in other directors’ and viewers’ minds, too. “We don't talk enough about the responsibility of the filmmaker,” she says. “The camera is a very, very powerful witness. And that's why I talked about trust, because Laura trusted me to go with her story, to tell her story to me. And she was literally going through these experiences as we were filming. Nothing was staged for the camera.”

The film also contains other intimate scenes, like sacred ceremonies conducted by high priestesses in Canada and in Romania. “We had to talk a lot to the people conducting these ceremonies,” Rau says. “And for me, the high priestesses, they would ask us, ‘What's your film about?’ [So there were]a lot of pre-interviews, where we would talk to them.”

Being granted access, the ability to bear witness as a documentarian, seems something precious in itself. “I think your track record helps,” she says. “They know that I've made all these other films and I come from Canada. So no matter where you go in the world, you just have to talk. I really believe that humans are inherently decent, good people, and you just have to talk to them and say, ‘This is what I'm doing.’ No nasty surprises.”

In the film, Andra’s journey takes her back to her home country of Romania, where she speaks with a high priestess claiming to be the most powerful witch in the world. The priestess conducts a ceremony for Andra, which is meant to allow the young Torontonian to forge a deeper connection with herself and her craft. The ceremony takes place in a graveyard. Initially, the priestess told Rau that she doesn’t let anyone film something as hallowed as her ceremony for Andra. Coming to her craft from a place of respectful curiosity, Rau knew how to respond.

“I said, ‘Okay,’” Rau says; she didn’t prod the priestess, and this worked in her favour. “[Hopefully] they’ll change their mind if you’re lucky. And they say, ‘You know what, it's okay, but no making noise.’ We have to get out of there fast. So you and your camera, you run with it. Those [moments] are the things that you get as a gift, you know?” In face of Rau’s tact, the priestess changed her mind, and the ceremony and its magic made it into the film.

Laura Hokstad, main film subject at Stonehenge.

And it’s these moments — rituals as momentous and demonstrative as a formal ceremony, or minute and mundane as the touching of a tombstone — that contain the story, Rau says, contain the magic that she wanted to bear witness to, and by extension have us bear witness to. These moments, big or small, contain humanity and belief in magic, which is a kind of magic unto itself, and to be able to capture them, Rau knew she needed to practice her intuitively empathetic, fluid, inquisitive, and observant form of filmmaking, which her subject matter seemed to allow her to enhance.

“I think being a witch or being just in touch with the vibrations of the world, of the universe, is all about rituals,” she explains. “And that's why, for me, there's so many rituals [in the film].” These rituals can be as small as making tea in the morning or singing happy birthday and blowing out a candle atop a cake. “I think Christianity has pushed us so far away from just being in touch with these simple rituals, which make us creatures of pattern, creatures of the universe,” she says. “We are all moving to that same kind of tune and that inner rhythm and that's so important to [capture].”

This is why Coven seems so revolutionary and refreshing — Rau’s patient and kind style allows her to intimately observe the three witches as they practice and improve their craft, as they perform various big and small rituals, and ultimately Rau is able to deliver to us a film that offers an exhilarating alternative to traditionally patriarchal forms of seeing. With Coven, Rau shows the power of respecting humanity as a documentarian, how this curious but still kind modus operandi creates a film as or more revelatory than the traditional way of pursuing and molding subject matter to fit within the confines of a preconceived thesis.

When Coven begins, it’s nigh impossible to predict where it will end, where these womens’ journeys will take them. “That's what a documentary is, right?,” Rau says. “You start from one place and you start following the story, and it could be something totally different [than what you expected].”

The film’s almost unpredictable and irreverent flow, like unruly waves, is engendered by the idea of going with the story, a sense of allowing and asking to be allowed. There is no overarching narration threaded through the film that works to make sense of the women and their rituals. At the film’s very beginning, an origination poem is read by Andra, which offers up one organic, oral interpretation of where witches came from. It’s a kind of glimmering folktale that Rau allows to stand on its own; rife with dragons and shooting stars and dripping blood, the tale is offered without being analyzed to reveal a dusty, bloodless, socio-political rationalization; the shimmering threads of its spirited tapestry aren’t torn away to reveal a threadbare and disconnected objective truth. Rau respects Andra’s words, her beliefs, understands the truth the tale contains for scores of people the world over, the magic it portends in being communicated.

In other words, Rau’s hand doesn’t prompt or prod or digest or rationalize Laura’s, Andra’s, or Ayo’s stories about how they came into witchcraft, and where they want to go with their practices. She lets the women speak for themselves, share their takes on truth, ultimately revealing the importance of multifarious subjective truths.

“That's why documentary is such an interesting genre, because POV is so important,” Rau explains. “If anyone else had done [this film, then] maybe it [would have been that] ‘Witches are weird and scary and haha look at them.’ But it's important for me to be empathetic, and it's also important for me to show women as strong. If I have one agenda in life, it's that. I'm tired of women being seen as victims, as acted upon rather than acting.”

Rau seems to understand that a documentary isn’t as much her story as it is the story of those who appear on screen. “I don't use the narrative voice,” she says. “I make the characters speak for themselves. And for me, that's very important because then it's unmediated. I don't want this male voice saying, [‘x, y, z’], I’m so tired of those kinds of films. I don't want a female voice, either, telling you what to think. I think you've gotta hear straight from the people themselves going through this.”

"It's important for me to be empathetic, and it's also important for me to show women as strong. If I have one agenda in life, it's that. I'm tired of women being seen as victims, as acted upon rather than acting."

Rau explains that her feminist, empathetic, expository style, her lack of driving and confining narration, inform and complement her interview style. Her interviews throughout Coven are incisive in a gentle way — the women share deeply personal aspects of their coming of age, how they were able to hone in on witchcraft despite societal friction, and they share only at their own pace. “At any given point in filming, I say, ‘Can we talk to you now? [...] Tell me about the anger you’re feeling right now,’ or whatever,” Rau says.

Laura’s journey takes her to Scotland, to the site that she saw in her regression, to the place where one of her ancestors was executed by the state. “In Scotland, I knew Laura was going through this really strong anger, and I wanted to register that,” Rau says. “I wanted her to feel free to feel that in front of the camera. And I think, honestly, it's just liberating to these people [...] who allow me into their lives, to go through those journeys and allow us to film it.”

Coven contains a kind of magic few documentarians have been able to catch. But for Rau, capturing the world’s ephemeral magic is as simple as practicing empathy and engendering trust, “because the whole thing is about trust, really, because they [your subjects] have to trust you to tell the story right,” she says.

And through the integral but unglamorous practice of empathetic observation and trust-building, allowing and asking to be allowed, Coven is able to bottle up that sacred something that so many people, women especially, have been able to communicate to others for hundreds of years.

“I come from a culture where we really respect the supernatural,” Rau says. “We really believe that magic is all around you, you just have to look for it. And I do believe women are magical. I do think our instincts are magical. I think we are losing a lot of that with modern life. I also think we are losing a lot of that with patriarchy telling us that we are lesser. And for me, that was very important to examine, [so that I could] reiterate the power of women.”


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