Filmmaker worked with international film crews to document religious faith and practice around globe
In 1902 William James published his classic work The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature, a book that remains in print more than a century later. He examined the psychological dimensions of religious feeling, placing emphasis on the pragmatic effect of faith on believers, versus whether such feelings are rational or not.
Religious customs and practices as they are lived around the world form the basis of the new documentary Sacred, directed by Academy Award-winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon. While not an academic study of the subject as in James' book, the film does indeed document the varieties of religious experience in locations from the United States to Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Africa and the Caribbean. Here, the focus is the manifestation of faith among individuals and communities--or, to you might say, religion as culture. The film does not seek to question the rational basis for these impulses, but to impart a sense of the meaning people derive from religious traditions and faith in God.
To interpret religion one must in the end look at the immediate content of the religious consciousness.
The film is available for streaming through local PBS stations via the PBS portal. It's also available on iTunes.
Nonfictionfilm.com interviewed the director of Sacred via email, asking Lennon, among other things, how he managed to complete such an ambitious project.
It was a huge undertaking to capture religious practice at so many points around the globe. How were you able to coordinate the efforts of filmmakers shooting material in so many different places and then make it work as a narrative whole?
Before hiring the filmmakers, I spent more than six months researching potential scenes for the film and gradually, painstakingly laying them out in a storyboard — not shot by scene, but scene by scene — over a hundred slides. We were very small research team in New York — finding scenes and identifying filmmakers — whom we found on the Internet — who could shoot the scenes. Once we started shooting, we only juggled three or four shoots at a time, because the collaboration was so intense — with pre-interviews and scouting tapes racing across the web back and forth with reactions, notes, approvals. The shooting took almost a year!
How challenging was it to create the film without relying on narration?
It was a joy working without narration. It allowed the two superb film editors, Maeve O’Boyle and Nick August-Perna, and me to hopscotch — to jump from scene to scene somewhat arbitrarily. But what I most loved about the absence of narration is that it plunges the viewer into intense experience and pushes onto the viewer the responsibility to sort out what he or she is experiencing. It makes the viewer much more active in the experience of the film — no experts telling you exactly what to think.
What did you learn about religious faith and religious practices in the course of making the film?
Human beings create meaning, and, religious or not, we need to do so. Given the headlines of recent years, we all know the destructive power of faith. It felt very good to swerve in an opposite direction, and look at people make use of ritual and prayer to navigate everyday problems large and small.
Scenes from Sacred, directed by Thomas Lennon. Photos courtesy PBS/WNET
Watching the film I was struck by how deeply religion is embedded in culture. One might even say religion produces culture. To what degree do you find the two inextricable?
Does religion produce culture? Are the two inextricable? That’s in a way the big question, isn’t it? The film won’t answer a vast question like that but I promise you this: it will make you think — and care — about the answer.
It is difficult to separate religion from politics, because so many world events are driven at some level by religious identification or ideology. But for the most part Sacred does not delve into the political ramifications of religious faith (at least in my observation). Am I correct in that? If so, what was the reasoning behind keeping the focus on just the actual lived experience of religious faith and ritual?
The media — with good reason — have lavished attention on the political impact of religious faith — whether bombs in the Middle East, or abortion wars here at home. To have covered that ground would have been a very different film. But now that I’ve made this film, it opened my eyes to the reverse. I read the awful political news of the past two years and I’m struck by how much it all seems like a religious war.
What do you hope viewers get from the film? What reactions have you received since it debuted on PBS stations?
I want to plunge you into an experience and give you no exit except by sorting through for yourself what you make of what you’re seeing, what you’re feeling.
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.