Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Nathanael Hood ponders what is SACRED at DOC NYC 2016

I liked Thomas Lennon’s new documentary Sacred, a sweeping examination of faith and religion captured with the help of 40 filmmaking teams around the world. Of course, I liked it more when it was called Baraka (1992) and was directed by Ron Fricke. Maybe that’s not fair: Lennon’s film focused explicitly on religion while Baraka didn’t try to limit itself to one topic. But both films try to evoke a kind of supreme universality, a shared human consciousness that transcends cultural boundaries by manifesting itself in countless dazzling variations. By juxtaposing these variations through montage editing, we find the common thread throughout. But something about Lennon’s approach here feels watered down and oddly self-satisfied. It’s still a remarkable achievement, but I doubt it will linger long in my mind.

The film is divided into three parts: Initiation, Practice, and Passage. The first sees traditions exploring birth and cultural coming-of-age: an Egyptian father sings the Muslim call to prayer to his newborn; assorted brises and baptisms; a young boy in Myanmar spends a week living as a monk; a Half Sari Ceremony in India; and marriages the world over. Practice involves how believers deal with the rigors of life itself: a Japanese couple visits a fertility shrine populated with giant ceramic penises; a body disposal expert buries Ebola victims in Sierra Leone; a group of American prisoners find freedom in Christian ministry despite their life sentences; a Catholic devotee is literally crucified during an annual re-enactment of the Passion of Christ in the Philippines. The final section predictably focuses on old age and death: an elderly woman who recently lost her husband and son completes her first pilgrimage to Mecca for the Hajj; a mid-Western American woman diagnosed with a terminal disease reflects on how faith allows her to help other struggling people; a Japanese ascetic completes a grueling nine-day meditation ceremony without sleep, food, or water. I have naturally left much of the film out, including numerous segments where Lennon turns his gaze on a handful of individuals whom I suppose were meant to “represent” their respective cultures.

I’m sure Lennon had the best intentions with Sacred, but I couldn’t help but notice the film accidentally reinforced some unfortunate racial stereotypes while largely ignoring several major cultures. For instance, with the exception of a 5 second clip of a Kenyan wedding, every segment in Africa shows the country as either destitute or crippled by disease. Poverty in first world nations is almost completely absent. And most bizarrely, the country of China is almost entirely omitted besides a number of montage edits and a clip of Chinese-Canadians practicing Tai Chi in Vancouver. Perhaps Lennon wasn’t too enthusiastic about revisiting a country he had already devoted so much of his career to—the man won an Academy Award for Documentary Short Subject for his 2006 film The Blood of Yingzhou District—but the relative absence of a nation of over 1.3 billion people feels too much of an oversight to dismiss.


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