Sacred (by guest blogger, Wendy Moscow)
Faith is often defined as an unquestioning belief in something unseen – a deity, or perhaps an inexorable force that shapes the patterns of life. The documentary “Sacred,” directed by Thomas Lennon, immerses us in a multicultural world of rites, rituals and celebrations from a variety of faith traditions, all of which create meaning in times of of joy, struggle and sorrow.
The director functions as more of a curator in this film, interweaving segments from more than forty independent filmmakers, all of whom are part of the communities they are documenting. We are present at a bris (Jewish ritual circumcision), we see a young boy eagerly prepare to become a Buddhist monk, we witness an Indian coming of age ritual, as well as an Apache Sunrise Ceremony which signals a girl’s passage into womanhood. Threads of mystery, pain and unbelievable beauty connect these, and many of the other rituals, which are presented without judgement and little explanation.
A young woman, Marta, in Seville, celebrates the transcendent quality of an annual procession in which the Madonna rides on the shoulders of ecstatic villagers. For the duration of the festival, bickering among her family members ceases, and they are united in a sense of common purpose. So many of these celebrations bring communities together, and allow for the suspension of life’s everyday tribulations. The Hindu Holi festival, for example, is a riotous expression of seasonal fertility and renewal whose exuberance practically jumps off the screen, as participants toss powders of many colors over the dancing bodies of their neighbors.
As we loosely progress through the chronology of our lives, a Kenyan wedding is juxtaposed with a wedding in the Netherlands, and we experience a common yearning for love and connection, though their cultural and religious expressions certainly differ. And we get to visit, and revisit, an elderly Japanese monk in a mountaintop monastery who has undertaken an arduous and soul-challenging pilgrimage – hiking the perimeter of the mountain for 1,000 days, culminating in a fast that he barely survives. Pain, and self-abnegation, also appears in a segment in which Muslim men beat themselves rhythmically on their chests, in a frenzy of submission to god. This sequence, as well as one in which Hassidic men prostrate themselves, ranting and wailing, over the grave of their founder, Rabbi Nachman, show extremes of faith, which, though interesting to witness, I find quite uncomfortable.
When faith traditions spawn oppressive institutions and dogma that privilege the fight against the “evil within” over the power of love, they can no longer recognize that we are all made of the same “starstuff” and reach across borders of difference. I far preferred the interview with Yael, a progressive Jew tending her garden, who spoke of god as “she,” and had a lovely, playful relationship with her family.
“Sacred,” with its impressionistically structured collage of rituals and ceremonies, served up without commentary, invites us to bring our emotions, our ambivalences, and yes, our love to this flawed enterprise of human existential exploration. The film ends as it starts – with the birth of a baby. And so the journey begins.