In Review: ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ by Helen Browning

Helen Browning, director of ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’

‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ is a documentary that takes a spellbinding look at contemporary druidry and witchcraft in Australia. It shines light on a world you may not know existed and will invite you to contemplate nothing less than the eternal mysteries of sex, life and death.

In fine documentary tradition, you will learn lots of new things from watching this film. Did you know that Yule is the pagan celebration that predated Christmas? That “awen” is the Celtic word for inspiration, also meaning “flowing spirit, the essence of life”? The Egyptian god Thoth is synonymous with eloquence, and Nut (or Nuit in Crowley’s Thelema) is goddess of the sky? Most forms of witchcraft date only from the 1950s? These facts emerge from the adepts’ passionate conversations while they are busy with various aspects of pagan life.

‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ is not primarily about facts. It offers us, rather, a stimulating portrayal of a broad cross-section of contemporary paganism, one that entirely dispels – pun intended – mass media’s crass hyperbolic reporting. One might expect a documentary on paganism to have lurid content, and no doubt the made-for-TV version would frame its subjects as oh-so-Australian weirdos. Yes, we encounter nudity in the rituals and meet, don’t laugh, a surfing druid. But the colossal strength of this film is its refusal to sensationalise its subject matter and to demonstrate beyond doubt that paganism is a serious subculture worthy of attention.

From the outset, we learn that pagan culture in Australia has deep respect for Aboriginal communities with their own rich tradition of spiritual rituals. Bilawara, a Larrakia Elder who is famed internationally as a healer and teacher of ancient wisdom, has been involved in many pagan events over the years. She is quick to counter the idea that her rites involve any kind of anarchistic licentiousness. “There are laws,” she insists.” If you are going to conduct your rituals or ceremonies, get permission from the custodians of that particular area.” She is not terribly keen on nudity in rituals as a rule, although this is also possible with consent.

Professor Douglas Ezzy and Bilawara Lee

Douglas Ezzy, Professor of Sociology at the University of Tasmania, provides a lively commentary throughout the film. He informs us that rituals, with masquerade and theatrics, “provide deep, profound, moving, wrenching, amazing experiences” and can be seen as a healthy response to Western culture’s “lost sense of transcendence.” Ritual also has a therapeutic value – “a way of working with those parts of ourselves that we find it hard to change.” It is good to see that Ezzy is not just a theorist but a practitioner too. When asked about whether a parent should be worried if their daughter has joined a local coven, he says no more or less so “than if she’d joined the local Catholic church.” Paganism doesn’t do morality in the same way as religion – but that doesn’t mean it is unethical. It is, in Nietzsche’s term, beyond good and evil.

The diversity of topics tackled by ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ shows how deeply eclectic esotericism is in Australia. The film also looks at how different traditions interpret Aleister Crowley’s cryptic concept of magick. The different strands of paganism, which include new age groups, new witchcraft, folklore, as well as artists and musicians, are all brought together by the desire to be at one with nature. A druid ritual can be as simple as taking a walk in the bush or yes, surfing. The community is engaged in environmentalism in a big way, supporting rallies against the destruction of the forests and effects of climate change, clearly seen in the scorched woodland of New South Wales.

Julie Brett, a practising druid
A wicker man at the English Ale Festival held in the Adelaide Hills

Could the documentary have been more critical about whether the many strands of paganism (Aboriginal, European, Latin, Ancient Greek etc.) truly fit together as a united collective? Perhaps. But the film does extremely important work in challenging misconceptions about pagan worship and, even more powerfully, any crude stereotype that modern Australians are bereft of culture and spirituality. At the outset of the film, we are reminded that “the English brought their calendar customs with them, but they didn’t ever think to be in touch with the land they were on.” Maypole dances, wicker men and Jack in the Green festivities are still widely celebrated in English towns such as Hastings. ‘UNDER A PAGAN SKY’ shows how the pagan communities Down Under have reappropriated and reimagined these hand-me-down traditions and forged a new kind of spirituality – one that is strangely suited to the 21st century. Kudos to Helen Browning and her excellent film for turning long-held prejudices upside down.

‘UNDER A PAGAN’ sky will screen at Hastings Rocks International Film Festival, 24-26 April 2022.

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