Alive Mind // 1989 // 166 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Kerry Birmingham (Retired) // May 14th, 2008
A Treatise on Wicca, Paganism, and "Churchianity"
The fact that this review is being read on the Internet should be indication enough that it's a big old world out there, but just in case you forgot that much of the world does NOT, in fact, resemble the small town of Sussex, Wisconsin (a hypothetical example that in no way resembles the exact spot at which I'm typing this), along comes this trio of documentaries to remind you that not only is it a big old world, it's an old old world as well. In other words, to quote someone who's possibly a better writer than I am, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth [...] than are dreamt of in your philosophy."
Heaven and Earth are exactly what's up for discussion in The Goddess Trilogy, filmmaker Donna Read's triptych of explorations into the traditions of female spirituality, with a heavy emphasis on pagan and Wiccan belief systems. Produced between 1989 and 1993 in conjunction with the National Film Board of Canada, Read attempts to elucidate thousands of years of spiritual tradition (and the near-eradication thereof) in just under three hours. It's a sprawling piece of work, touching on personal storytelling, cultural education, and cold metaphysics in its quest to illuminate its subject. It's not entirely successful, but it does provide interesting topics for intellectual digestion.
Part One, Goddess Remembered, uses a gathering of modern goddess-worshippers to frame a progression through time of ancient cultures and the role of both women and the goddess symbol in those societies. Traversing thousands of years of history, this first part lays out the basic historical foundations for goddess worship.
The second part, "The Burning Times," focuses on the historical persecution of witches and pagans and how ancient religions were changed by time and the persistence of the new world order into something commonly feared and hated.
The conclusion, "Full Circle," brings us back to modern times and looks back on how a growing interest in the spiritual traditions of the past has rekindled the feminine spirit and gained a newfound acceptance in the modern world.
There's a certain impulse to roll your eyes at much of the contents of Women and Spirituality. Paganism and Wicca have a popular, if unearned, reputation for being somewhat flaky, primitive religions, and there's more than a few things in Read's films that will reinforce such notions. I suspect there's more than a few viewers who will walk away completely unconvinced of the points these films are making based solely on people with names like "Starhawk" discussing things like the oppression of "Churchianity" (as one panelist repeatedly terms it). There's even some wince-inducing footage of hirsute hippie-types flapping away on drums in (surprise, Red States!) San Francisco.
But then, these films weren't made to make any real converts. Christian hard-liners aren't likely to get the kind of "Paganism 101" they want, if they're even watching this to begin with. Christianity, and monotheism in general, take quite a few knocks in these films, as many of the participants come to goddess-worship from their own disillusionment with Catholicism and Judaism, to say nothing of Christianity's role in the demonization of ancient religions (Part Two isn't called The Burning Times for nothing). Whether or not these films' depictions of Christianity are fair is probably fodder for a whole different set of documentaries (pardon me, I'm having flashbacks to my review of The Golden Compass).
Christianity may be the major religion of the modern Western world, but its function is more historical and incidental here to the discussion of what happened to these ancient belief systems, and how they're relevant to the modern world. Despite an academic tone and Martha Henry's solemn narration (music trivia note: Loreena McKennitt provides the soundtrack), these films do presume a certain level of sympathy and familiarity from the viewer. When we're told that Stonehenge was built on "lines of energy that criss-cross the Earth," we're meant to take that as categorical and unexplicated fact, one of many concepts thrown around that gets little direct explanation. It's a good example of the trilogy's inherent pact with the audience: just listen to us for a minute and we'll tell you what we believe. This earnestness tends to override any inherent cynicism on the viewer's part: it becomes very clear, very early that, whatever your own take on the ideas being presented, believing in them made a difference to these dissident women who weren't sated by the beliefs they were taught. Where these films excel is in the dialogue it creates with its participants, emphasizing the sense of community that goddess-worship fosters. With the volume of ideas and history being contemplated in these movies, it's forgivable that so much of it is presented at face value (remember what What's-His-Name said about Heaven and Earth a few paragraphs up?). All of which is beside the point: as one interviewee explicitly states in Full Circle, the "goddess" is just as much a means of finding yourself as any other belief system. In a world where a search for meaning is continually superseded by the practicalities of mere living and a collective wariness of the modern world, praying to a Celtic harvest goddess is as much an expression of the human condition as spending one day a week praying to a 2,000-year-old dead man.
Intended as educational material, Women and Spirituality is very much a bare-bones release, with no bonus features save a pair of overlong trailers for other Alive Mind releases before the menu screen. Being a late-'80s Canadian television documentary series, picture quality is flat and unremarkable, as is the sound. Subtitles would have been a handy addition considering the sheer amount of weird verbiage being tossed around.
While the look and feel of these films haven't aged particularly well, the sense of environmental urgency that repeats from movie to movie seems more relevant than ever; it's hard to hear about balance and reverence for the Earth and not think about the current environmental frenzy. That realization is more sobering than any of the carefully intoned narration: as far as looking to the past to know the future, these dirty hippies may have a point.
Yes, there are elements of these films that reinforce a lot of preconceived notions and are bound to raise a few eyebrows, but many of the overriding points are still relevant nearly twenty years on. If nothing else, the sincere desire of these three movies to advance a certain level of understanding, appreciation, and contemplation, mixed with plenty of food for thought, make them worthwhile. They're unlikely to be as thorough or as concrete as many viewers would like, but the feeling of-I'm going to finally toss out the word "empowerment" here, in deference to the feminism espoused in the films-the feeling of empowerment enjoyed by their subjects and the philosophies behind them keep the subject matter compelling.
I'm going to rule Not Guilty, but you damn hippies still need to get haircuts. We might take you seriously then.
Review content copyright © 2008 Kerry Birmingham; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Alive Mind
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 166 Minutes
Release Year: 1989
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* IMDb: Goddess Remembered
* IMDb: The Burning Times
* IMDb: Full Circle
* Official Site