SALT LAKE CITY – Filmmaker Joshua Samson was “writing a silly little short” some years ago and decided one of his characters would be a witch.
“I didn’t want to rely on Hollywood stereotypes about who Witches are,” Samson said. “I knew Wicca existed but I didn’t really know much about it. I decided to start doing some research and build up my knowledge base so I could write a more realistic character.”
The more he read, the more fascinated he became. “Down the line I had conversations with someone who would make some offhand comments about Witches or Wiccans, and I realized that people know even less than I knew starting out,” he said. “They had a lot of preconceived notions.”
Samson noted a lot of films and pop culture depictions of Witches convey an aura of “I guess you could say ‘gothic,’” he said with a chuckle.
Though he was raised “dogmatically Roman Catholic” while growing up in Webster Groves, Mo., near St. Louis, “if I was going to give myself a label, I’d call myself an animist,” Samson said. “When I’m feeling spiritual, it’s usually in nature. That also drew me to researching a little bit more on Wicca and Witches and all that, because of the nature aspect.”
Samson — who champions what he calls “counter cinema,” as in counter to Hollywood – decided to make a documentary about real Witches and Wiccans. The result is Enlightenment Spell, an hour-long film that will have its premiere Sept. 14 in Nashville as part of the Second Annual IPMA Music Awards. Samson then plans to shop his movie to the film festival circuit before making it available online.
When Samson began work on his film three years ago, he found his first subjects easily enough. He reached out to Crone’s Hollow, “a ritual-supply-slash-community-center for Pagans in Salt Lake” that was “within walking distance of my house,” he said.
After filming at Crone’s Hollow, including the emporium’s move to another Salt Lake location, Samson decided to expand his documentary’s reach.
“I could just make it about Witches in Salt Lake City, which is interesting enough in the shadow of Mormonism, but I wanted to make it less regional,” said Samson, who earned his undergrad degree in mass media studies at Missouri State University and his master’s of arts in film at the University of Utah. “Being from Missouri myself, being from the edge of the Ozarks, I always used to hear stories about Ozark witches. They’re popular in lore in the region.”
He found Alfred Willowhawk, co-founder and high priest of the Wite Rayvn Metaphysical Church of the Ozarks ATC, “on some Wiccan chat group,” Samson said. “I don’t know how many of those exist anymore. I reached out to him and we got to talking and he invited we down there, so I went and filmed just for a weekend.”
According to information on Samson’s website, Enlightenment Spell “is not a history lesson, nor an instruction manual, but instead is a genuine conversation to get to know some witches themselves. This film is being made to facilitate a better conversation about what witchcraft really is, to do away with some of the negative preconceptions, and to give witchcraft a true face.”
“We still get judged by preconceptions,” Willo’ Wellspring, high priestess of Wite Rayvn, says in the film. “You know, we all dance naked and have orgies and sacrifice — and that is not what we do at all.”
“Pagan pride is about community,” Rita Morgan says in the documentary. “We’re your neighbors. We’re your friend. We’re your school teacher. We’re your policemen. We are people just like everybody else. There is nothing strange or spooky about us. We’re just Pagan.”
Warren Gerritsen is seen speaking lightheartedly about his Baphomet statuette: “He’s got horns, hooves, tail, tits! The bodacious boobs of Baphomet!”
Shelley Holloway is seen recalling a time in her youth: “I always joke that my Barbie dolls were my first coven. Literally they had an altar and a book of shadows. I kid you not . . . . I had no idea that this was something real, that this was something people did.”“I wanted the film to be a realistic conversation that wasn’t threatening, that wasn’t sensationalizing anything,” Samson said. “Having taught film for so long, especially when I taught film to teenagers in an after-school program for many years, I finally realized if you make a movie, you might as well be saying something with that movie. Rather than than just making something for giggles, you need to have a – not necessarily a moral to the story, but what are you actually examining? What do you want people to get out of it?
“That’s counter to Hollywood. Every now and then a film comes out that’s a little bit challenging, but the Hollywood method is primarily to entertain and to make money. Counter cinema is really just offering another perspective that you’re not used to seeing in typical Hollywood movies.”
Asked if he believes film has the power to change hearts and minds, Samson said: “I think film has the power to give the opportunity for people to change their hearts and minds. . . . I teach a class at the community college here – many people teach this class, but I’m one of the instructors — and it’s a diversity class where we look at representations of race, gender, sexuality, and class in typical Hollywood films and how that’s a reflection of the greater American culture and American society.
“Through that experience I’ve realized that just showing a film that has a slightly different outlook, a slightly different vantage point can be really eye-opening for a lot of people who only consume the standard fare.”
That applied to Samson during the making of his documentary.
“I learned a lot,” he said. “What I mainly learned is how individual Wicca and Paganism are for everybody even among groups that practice together. I think that’s the most fascinating and wonderful thing about Paganism in general, and Wicca included in that umbrella: everybody can believe what they want to believe and very rarely did I see anybody say you’re wrong.
“It’s a novel concept. It’s like, ‘Oh, if that’s what gets you through the day, if that’s the spirituality that you need in order to make sense of the world, fantastic. That’s doesn’t threaten me, so you go ahead and practice that way and I’ll practice my way and if it works out that we can do it at the same time, awesome.’ That was the thing I learned and enjoyed most about making the film.”