We talk with documentarian Thomas Lennon about filming religious traditions without being exploitative.
Early in Thomas Lennon's new documentary, Sacred—which explores the intimacies of daily religious practice all over the world—there's a young Muslim girl watching her father in prayer. She attempts to mimic his movements as he folds his hands, touches his mouth, bends forward, places his head on the mat in front of him—but his motions are not natural to her, nor do they signify more than just a strange routine she knows she's meant to learn. Because of this, she performs the actions clumsily, laughing. An older woman comes behind the girl and, as an instruction, forces her hands together against her chest.
"I wanted that scene to work in such a way that two people could be sitting next to each other in a movie theater and could walk away with completely different feelings," Lennon—who won a 2006 Academy Award for his short documentary The Blood of the Yingzhou District—told me over tea in his Chelsea brownstone. "One could think: This is an extraordinary transmission of culture from one generation to the next and, wow, how beautiful; another person could think: This is coercive. The motion is crude. There's nothing subtle or invitational about it. It's pushing the body into accord with religious tradition."
Sacred, which opens in New York City today, began with a mandate to Lennon from outgoing Channel 13 president William Baker to make an unconventionally produced film about religions all over the world. After a lot of consideration, Lennon eschewed the traditional route of loading a film crew and gear into a plane and jumping from location to location. "I've done that, and it's a lot of fun, but it felt kind of 20th century as an approach. Also, I was stimulated by the question: Can you direct a sweeping global film and never once get out of your chair in New York?"
Instead, after researching the visual content he wanted and storyboarding the entire film, Lennon solicited footage from accomplished, professional filmmakers from all around the world—40 filmmaking teams in 25 countries in total. "We were able to tap into local knowledge, culture, language. In some cases, the filmmakers were of the same faith they filmed. They took my concept and made it better, and then I started to shape these pieces using their more informed perspective."
But Sacred is far from crowdsourced: Each of the filmmakers were working to fulfill certain briefs from Lennon, primarily that every experience should be immediately recognizable as human experience. "That sounds like a cliché, but there's meaning to it," said Lennon. "I wanted visual appeal, but I never wanted mere spectacle. And I think that would have been an easy trap to fall into, especially when you're trying to make the film interesting. But spectacle distances the viewer from human experience."
The temptation to exploit the more stunning visual elements of religious celebrations like Holi—the Hindu festival where believers take to the streets to throw powders that fill the air with brightly colored clouds—is understandable. Such a festival begs for overhead shots, as their faces and clothes are painted a mosaic of electric green, orange, yellow, red—but instead, the viewer navigates the festival in step with a young participant, as if we were her friend walking through the crowds with her. We are kept so close to her that when she wets her face to clean off the powders, we can nearly feel the gritty texture on her skin.
In another scene, a couple visits a fertility shrine in Japan surrounded by large stone penis statues. The couple write their wishes to conceive onto a smaller penis statue and place it in a row with hundreds of others. There's an easy sight gag here, but, again, Lennon resists obvious turns in favor of close-ups on the couple, their concerned faces communicating recognizable, relatable human longing. "I wanted you to feel connected to people," said Lennon. "And, if just for that time, to understand and empathize with that person and not be looking from the outside and thinking: Oh my God, that's so weird."
Another way that Lennon brings us close to his subjects is by letting us witness without the interruption of explanation. There are no talking heads or experts to contextualize, politicize, or even name the rituals we observe. There are long stretches of screen time that go on wordlessly. The effect, at times, makes the viewer feel as if they were simply in the same room with the subjects. This successfully dissolved the one concern I had going into the film, which was: What would the film offer a skeptic like me? One who bristles at the idea of being, well, preached at? The film's answer is to avoid taking on religion in the abstract, representing it not as a monolith with constructive and destructive capabilities but, instead, as a tool used by individuals as they attempt to navigate single moments in their lives.
"The argument," said Lennon, "is to take this experience seriously and to accord it respect, to push you into a close enough encounter with human beings engaged in something that matters a great deal to them, and to have that experience be intense enough that it shakes your certainties a tiny bit loose. From there is no solution other than to think your way out."
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