Filmmaker op-ed: Thomas Lennon on his 'Sacred' documentary, "a chance to look at how faith warms"
Oscar winner's PBS film, on religious experience as lived worldwide, now competing for News and Documentary Emmys
Editor's note: Oscar-winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon's documentary Sacred "immerses the viewer in the daily use of faith and spiritual practice" around the world. The film, now in contention for News and Documentary Emmy nominations, is remarkable not only for its exceptional photography, but the scope of its storytelling, with scenes shot on multiple continents. In this filmmaker op-ed for Nonfictionfilm.com, Lennon describes the filmmaking process and his artistic goals.
By Thomas Lennon
Almost 50 different filmmakers shot our film! The task of the editing was to make a single, cohesive film from a cacophony of voices spoken in over a dozen languages, set in 25 different countries, recorded on a whole range of different cameras. Most importantly, the task was to reveal and highlight the common threads in religious and cultural practices that on the surface shared no common story. And all this of course without experts or narration to bind these scenes together.
“Religion is fire,” the great British Rabbi Jonathan Sacks once wrote. “It can warm, and it can burn.” After all the grim headlines, we know how badly faith burns when it is abused. Here was a chance to look at how faith warms – to look at prayer and religious ritual as practiced by billions of human beings as a tool to navigate daily life. When it comes to faith, people’s minds and views are largely made up; our goal was to immerse viewers with enough intensity that they question their certainties, that they think and feel freshly about a subject that they considered entirely settled.
There was no simple formula guiding our editing. Some scenes last barely a few moments, but one scene, in a prison, runs eight minutes. Many scenes rely heavily on the spoken word, yet at other times the film runs for several minutes without a single word said, all the content supplied by the images we see and the music we hear. We had a rule: each scene would speak for itself, as a single piece, and that we would never come back to it. Then, to our great excitement, we broke that rule, just once: we establish the Japanese monk’s trek as a recurrent event, tying the three acts of the film to each other.
Our work with the composer was intensely collaborative, starting right at the beginning of the edit, before the scenes were cut. This allowed us to think of the music not as background or support, but as its own character, at times dominating the storytelling, and at other times, falling back.
The whole film was an experiment: Would it be possible to make a sweeping global film that would hang together, thematically, artistically and visually, without the director ever going on location? Would it be possible to enlist all these disparate filmmaking teams to make a single, cohesive work? It’s not a model that’s right for every film, but we believe that in this case, the answer is clear. Yes, it can work – if the editing rises to the challenge and builds up the connective tissue linking every scene.
Editor's note: Sacred is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and through PBS Passport.
Matthew Carey is a documentary filmmaker and journalist. His work has appeared on Deadline.com, CNN, CNN.com, TheWrap.com, NBCNews.com and in Documentary magazine.