Movies like The Craft, Hocus Pocus, and The Witch grab our attention come Halloween time or whenever we want a good scare or to watch women cast spells in the moonlight. In reality, witches are so much more than women who cast spells or fly with broomsticks between their legs.
Rama Rau’s documentary Coven, airing on the CBC and streaming on CBC Gem Sunday, January 28 at 8 p.m. ET, shows us that there’s much more depth and humanity in women who practice witchcraft. They also come from all walks of life.
In the film we meet Andra, a witch who’s originally from Romania and has been practicing for a long time and has lots of family support in her practice. We meet Leilani, who’s a queer Ethiopian and Eritrean witch and singer who feels connected to her practice through dreams. And lastly, we’re introduced to Laura, who’s also a queer witch who’s trying to find grounding in her witch identity and is on the chase to find out more about her lineage.
These women travel from the Greater Toronto Area overseas and across borders to become further educated on their craft, but also their heritage.
Laura travels to Salem, Massachusetts, and Crook of Devon, Scotland, and learns how important tracing back your ancestors can be when practicing something like witchcraft. Andra travels back home to the outskirts of Bucharest, Romania where she’s connected with “Europe’s most powerful witch,” Mihaela Minca, and visits her family’s home, which makes her feel close to her late father. Leilani flies over to New Orleans, Louisiana to learn about the practice of Voodoo and meets with Queen Erzulie, founder of a Black witches movement where she’s met with emotional support and validation.
We spoke with Andra Maria Zlatescu and Laura Hokstad about their involvement with the documentary and their experiences being witches. These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.
Q&A with Andra Maria Zlatescu
In the documentary you say witchcraft helps us to reclaim our own narratives. Do you believe it has helped you reclaim your own narrative or is that still in the works?
Absolutely. I think witchcraft is about finding your own power and standing in that power, and so part of that is for me in a huge way getting to learn to use my own voice to speak my truth. And then telling our own stories and not having other people decide what that looks like for you. You get to create the world around you as you want it to be because you claim your power within your sphere of influence.
Another thing you say in the documentary is that you always knew you were a witch. Do you remember what first made you aware of this?
I think it ties back to when I was little. My grandmother and my father told me a lot of stories. And a lot of the stories were, you know, folktales. Some were fairy tales, a lot of them were Romanian traditional, and I just kind of grew up with this worldview and belief system that they really shared, which is that everything is alive, everything is sacred. There’s really magic all around us and we’re part of this intricate web of energy, and being, and creation.
My relationship with animals is a huge one for me. I feel such a deep connection with animals and the land. But that’s really it, there wasn’t one defining moment. I started reading tarot cards when I was extremely young. I was really fascinated by all of those things. I got my first deck in third grade, my parents gave them to me.
You mention your belief that time isn’t linear but that the past, present, and future are overlapping. Can you explain that a bit further?
I believe that the past and the future occur in the present moment and we carry those in our bodies. So the past exists because we have memories of it in the present moment and we carry those memories with us in our body or our heart because we don’t have to be actively thinking about them for them to be present. And so that informs how we do things, how we relate to people, how we relate to ourselves, and the present. But it also informs the future what we’re currently creating and moving towards or putting our energy into.
How did it feel to go back to your family’s home in Romania?
I’m not sure how much this is conveyed in the documentary, but what happened before I was invited to join them for filming is Rama, the director, had called me for an interview initially and we talked for a long time. I started telling her about my father’s stories that he would tell me growing up and he told me a lot about sacred, magical places in Romania. By the end of the conversation she said ‘I want to bring you to all these places. Please come with me.’
My dad passed away six years ago so it was really powerful and really special and really beautiful. To feel those threads of his stories get woven together in a way that I could actually experience those things and go to those places, which I don’t think I would have necessarily known how to pursue on my own, it really felt like he had set it up for me.
How did it come about for you to meet with Mihaela Minca?
Rama had arranged that. What I didn’t expect was that they (Mihaela and her daughters) would welcome me into their coven. They initiated me on camera, like in the movie, so that was really powerful and really vulnerable and really intense. I actually got to practice alongside them and learn from them. I grew up kind of half in Romania and half in North America and I wasn’t raised very traditionally so it was really validating to have them be the ones who are saying you’re meant to be here.
What do you want people to know about witchcraft?
I think a really big thing is that witchcraft is about claiming your own personal power as a creator and a destroyer, embracing your shadow aspect and that the only teachers you should ever follow are those that guide you back to your heart. And so everyone has their own gift that they’ve come here to share, you know with community and reciprocity. Part of that gift is also accepting other people’s gifts because I think we can’t share our gifts if they’re not also appreciated or held space for. It’s just kind of finding whatever you know your core frequency of the thing that makes you feel the most fulfilled and aligned with your spirit, and allows you to share your spirit in the deepest most beautiful fullest way, and that’s your highest form of magic and power.
How do you feel about the way witches are portrayed in film?
I think there’s a lot of novelty behind it and I think the focus is often on the spook factor when in reality a lot of people don’t look that way or practice that way. I think one of the things that irritates me about modern culture, and especially how witchcraft has become this really big trend, is that it’s become very much like a brand of edgy consumerism. It’s like, if you buy the right stuff and look this way then you’re a witch. Or if you buy these products to fix your problems, then that’s magic. And I actually find that extremely predatory and disempowering because it preys on a huge part of women and young women who are insecure and trying to find grounding in their identity. And I really think that magic and spells work if you put your own energy and effort and intention behind them. You can never buy something that’s going to solve your problems or give you an identity really. So I think whenever capitalism takes hold of those things that at their core are really really beautiful and empowering, they can become very harmful and disempowering.
Q&A with Laura Hokstad
You talked in the documentary about how you found yourself building altars as a kid with sticks and rocks. What do you think pushed you to do that?
I grew up outside of town so we were around a lot of forests and a lot of green space. We were pretty far away from other people so I found myself just playing by myself a lot and exploring the woods around my house. I feel like maybe it was just something in my brain, but I would do things in a ritualistic way. I would find a rock or a branch or something and kind of endow meaning into it in my little kid brain. It was just like a little game that I played when I was a kid.
Another thing you mentioned in the documentary was that your journey with witchcraft so far has been kind of lonesome. Do you feel that has changed since the filming of the documentary?
Well for a large part of my practice it still is quite solitary, but because I was part of this documentary what ended up happening is people in my circle that I didn’t realize were spiritual or interested in witchcraft or had their own practice, they would reach out to me to get together and do something together. I’ve had a few experiences with one friend in particular and it’s felt really nice because, like I say in the documentary, for so long it was just me on my own trying to figure it out and also having a bit of imposter syndrome about it. I didn’t want to ask anyone else because I was afraid they would say I’m not enough or I’m not doing it right. There were all those kinds of fears, but really this documentary just kind of [puts it] all out there.
How did it come about to meet Andra and how was it?
We connected through the documentary. Literally there’s a scene where we’re sitting in the woods and she’s sharing with me about her experience, that was the first time we’d ever met so I was really nervous. Again, I think there was a lot of that imposter syndrome coming in. Here’s this person who’s been practicing witchcraft for a lot longer than me, is she going to think I don’t belong? All of these insecurities I had before meeting her, but as soon as I met her those were out the window. We bonded right away and we still talk, we hangout, so I’m really really thankful for the documentary because I did get to meet her and she’s wonderful.
Through your mother’s cousin she was able to track your mother’s family back to Mary Easty, a woman killed in the Salem Witch Trials. What was your initial thought or feeling when you found out this information?
It was really emotional. Having that familial connection to the witch trials kind of made me think maybe this is why I’ve been drawn to it all this time. Because there is that family history, and just having that ability to trace it back kind of cemented that for me. But then at the same time I think we all kind of have been taught a little bit about the witch trials and what they were, but I think it’s once you have that kind of actual connection to it then it all feels all the more real.
I did get really angry and then that brought me down a path of trying to learn more about it. We see movies like The Craft or Hocus Pocus or Practical Magic and they’re this idealized idea of what a witch is, but when you do research and actually find out what went on during those witch trials it’s awful. From like the 1400s to the 1700s I think they said between 40,000 and 50,000 people were killed because they were accused of witchcraft. And it’s not that they were these green skinned women in the woods kidnapping children. They were possibly unmarried women, they could’ve been queer women, they could’ve been enslaved or immigrant women, or people who had property that somebody else wanted.
How did it come about for you to travel to Salem, Massachusetts and Crook of Devon, Scotland?
Rama (the director) was looking for somebody in the Toronto area that had an interest in witchcraft, but hadn’t pursued it yet. So we just kind of met and that’s how we started working together. And then it was the meeting with my mother’s cousin (Kathleen) that launched us onto this path. I had no idea that I could trace my family back to not one, but two witch trials. It was all through our research and ancestry. And it really just happened through the documentary.
In the film you get to experience a past life regression. Had you ever done that before?
No, not in an official way like that. I have a friend who you meet in the film. Her and I Zoom together and talk, she’s my best friend and really like the one person that I’ve connected with throughout my practice. Her and I had tried one just on our own in kind of like a meditative way. It wasn’t anything as visceral as that past life regression. I’ve never tried any hypnotherapy or any kind of energy healing. Anything like that was so new to me and I had no idea what to expect, but it was really profound, and it kind of caught me off guard, especially the heaviness of the emotions. I didn’t expect to feel the way that I did.
Another thing you mention in the documentary is wanting to start your own queer coven. Can you explain why you want to start your own and the focus on it being a queer coven?
I think that I feel very comfortable around other queer people, and I think there’s a shared experience there that kind of makes the environment feel immediately more safe. I think also connecting other queer people to a community where they might also feel the isolation that I did is important. A reason why I was drawn to witchcraft and specifically this more open practice that I have is I didn’t want to have any hierarchy structures that traditional religion has. So having a queer coven for me I felt like we could strip away any of that power structure and all come in equal and I think that’s kind of why my goal was to do that. So far I’ve connected to do some rituals with one specific friend, who is also queer, so we’re starting small and I think it can just grow from there.
To find out more about the documentary Coven, visit covendoc.com.
Photo credits: CBC/Coven