May 18, 2012

Recent Movies Explore Women's Spirituality

Three Movies Explore Women's Spirituality

 by John-Brian Paprock

As a modern man in 21st Century, like most modern men, I like to believe I am quite liberated. In my youth, I stood and watched my mother burn her bra and held an "ERA now" sign at our high school rally in the mid-1970s.  Many women could vouch for my progressive non-chauvinistic views, even if they do not understand how my religious and spiritual life in Eastern Christianity allows me to have them. Yet it is from my own deep spirituality and spiritual development that appreciation for differences balanced with the overwhelming amount in common we share regardless of gender.

Nevertheless, there is a mystique of women's spirituality that I often feel is beyond my experience as a man.  In these three recent independent films (all available on DVD and Blue Ray), I find three women in the depths of spiritual dilemma, struggles and even despair. And in that dramatized struggle, these films have helped me begin to understand some of the unique characteristics of women's spirituality.

In each of these stories, the main character, a woman, pushes beyond the boundaries of her life and reaches an epiphany of sorts, though not as romantic as it may sound. In fact, even though these three films examine women relationships with men, I would not classify them as romantic movies. The life problems and resolutions may not be as neat and tidy (or even complete!) as in more conventional male-dominated stories. Spirituality and humanity are entangled in these stories - as are cultural,  religious, and social dynamics. Yet, each of these movies brings to light the power of women's spirituality, despite the central character of religion and culture that have certainly been male-dominated.

Although some may not understand my choices of these movies as demonstrative of feminine spirituality.  There may be better movies that have been made or will be made on the topic. However, I believe that these three films will give, at the least, some clarity to women's spiritual struggles as different from men's struggles, yet, in relation to men. In addition, each of these films can give insight into an evolving spiritual ideal for women that may still be a mystery to many men, as well as to many women.

1. Shi (Poetry)
(2010) Unrated - 139 minutes - Kino International - Korean with English subtitles

Writer and director Chang-dong Lee put together an exceptional movie about a sixty-something Korean woman, faced with the discovery of a heinous family crime as she fights the early stages of Alzheimer's disease. Yoon Jeong-hee stars in the leading role, which was her first role in a film since 1994. She is deserving of all the awards and accolades for her stunning performance that maintains all the nuance and humility of centuries-old cultural traditions and yet expressive of a modern life.

When she reaches out to find strength and purpose for the last portion of her life, she enrolls in a poetry class. And throughout the movie, her search for poetry in her life and surroundings alludes to a deep spiritual awakening. 

An awakening hoped for by all in the Buddhist and Confusionist culture of Korea.  I have had the honor of talking openly and honestly with some elders of Korea. They told me their fondest hope and desire would be to divest themselves of all their possessions and wander the hills and mountains and villages of their homeland, trusting in the compassion of others as they reach for a state of complete detachment in preparation for the next life. They were concerned that their adult children would only think they were being foolish.  One gentleman confided that his own father had taken that journey when he turned 60 years. He talked of it with pride.

Throughout this movie, I thought of that spiritual need to disentangle and be unecumbered at the end of life.  In Buddhism and other Eastern spirituality, the ideal is to have lived one's entire life with such detachment.  But detachment alone will not bring one to a better next life, rather it is the mixture of detachment and compassion that show one's advancement.  Although the elder seems to leave everything behind and ventures forward alone, they cannot go until they have taken care of their moral and family obligations. It is a moral, social, cultural and spiritual charge that brings one to that enlightened status.

In this beautifully crafted film, instead of the old male dominated stories of heroic detachment that are among some of the most ancient stories of humankind, we are given the real dilemmas of an urban woman called to her higher ideals.  The beauty of this film is in walking with her through her process of disentanglement and detachment, even as we share in her new found appreciation for the beauty always around her that she did not notice.

2. Martha Marcy May Marlene
(2011) Rate R - 102 minutes - Fox Seachlight
Billed as an American psychological thriller, this film is about one woman's journey back from an abusive cult in the rural Catskill Mountains.  It is in her struggles with the delusions and fears (paranoia is not too strong a word in this movie) that haunt her as she tries to return to a normal life with the help of her estranged sister and her brother-in-law.

It was written and directed by Sean Durkin, who won the Dramatic Directing Award at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival for his efforts. Together with star, Elizabeth Olsen (who in this, her debut screen peformance, was nominated for 30 acting awards and won 10 of them), they present a suspenseful and accurate portrayal of the psychological and spiritual damage from dangerous groups that espouse universal love and freedom but then take complete control of their members. 

Like in so many of these groups, the central character is given a "new" name and told that she is "a teacher and a leader," but, until she is no longer the newest member, does she find out the real meaning of such an esteemed title. The charismatic and creepy leader is expertly played by John Hawkes.

In her escape and subsequent attempts at returning to the non-cult world, she is confronted with the core of her beliefs in society, in family, in her self and, existentially, her relationship to everything. It is impossible not to be moved and intrigued by watching her internal conflicts played out in the film. They bring to bear the spiritual difficulties of a young woman's idealism and beliefs when they are played against her own best interests. Although there is violence in this movie (along with some sex and nudity), the real violence is in the growing understanding through this movie that a woman's inner gauge, her gut, her intuition, or whatever other name you would give the divine compass that guides her morals and ethics, has been nearly ripped out of her soul and yet she feels guilty for getting away, for seeking some healing and nurturance.

It is unfortunately true that most cults (and other destructive groups) are lead by charismatic men, not women. Although, as the film points out, women can play key roles in the maintenance and growth of such perverse and pathological groups. In this case, the movie does a very good job of not focusing on peculiar theologies and bizarre cosmologies that seem to pervade cults.  By not getting into the details of the leader's beliefs (which are presented as rather simplistic, not typical of even the smallest of cults), the movie is free to examine more of his characteristics, mannerisms and demands as well as the dynamics between cult members  The question is always asked about cults: how do intelligent and caring people end up part of a cult?  This movie also gives an insider view of how one can be hooked and initiated. 

This cult group is rather loose and rurally based, but it could have easily been a small bible church in the Appalachians or a small meditation group in a large city or a hundred other religious and psuedo-religious groups.  The dynamics are the same. Unfortunately, the escape, the exiting, is just as problematic and difficult as portrayed in this movie.

The film shows the power of a woman's devotion and how men of mischief and spiritual disease seek and desire that power.  Once taken, the film also shows the painful process a woman must endure to be healed of that soul killing spiritual violence.  Indeed, the film raises the question if anyone can fully recover from such destructive energies.

3. Higher Ground
(2011) Rated R - 109 minutes - Sony Classics

Even the title suggests a film about spirituality, but the title is more about a yearning rather than a destination. In Vera Farmiga's directorial debut, she has given us a powerful movie about a woman's lifelong struggle with faith in God. 

This movie could be considered a Christian movie by some. Perhaps, an anti-Christian film by others. It is, in Farmiga's own words, "a woman's search for safer footing, higher ground."

Higher Ground screenwriter Carolyn S. Briggs based the screenplay on her published memoir, This Dark World, which is about her own struggles with belief, love, hope and trust - in human relationships as well as in God.  In struggling with an evangelical Christian faith, she was confronted with disenchantment, conflict and confusion.

Throughout the film, we seem to be asked the questions of faith that can entangle any of us. But, when asked  and dealt with by an honest woman, there are some surprising insights and unique difficulties that are explored in this movie.

Toward the beginning of the movie, a young Corinne Walker was walking on stilts and we are given the sense that she had always wanted to be higher, to be closer to God.  And yet throughout the movie, Corinne seemed instead to lean on everyone else's faith, looking to their reactions to faith to gauge her own.  At one point she demands, "Draw near to me God."  Then, immediately asks in a desparate tone, "Where are you?" 

The film follows Corinne, her intimate and familial relations from her youth to her adulthood, including a pregnancy-urged marriage and a troubling yet devout best friend, Annika (played with authenicity by Dagmara Dominczyk), whose faith seemed greater than her own. Corinne's love and envy of her friend leads to some of the most dramatic moments in the movie. (Another performance of note is John Hawkes as Corinne's father. It is amazing that this is the same actor mentioned in the review above!) 

The film ultimately doesn't answer questions of faith. Even though a Protestant Evangelical church and house church ministry is presented in the movie, Farminga avoids preachiness, or presenting squeaky-clean faith, or even attempting parody, as so many other faith based movies have done.

In the "making of" special feature of the DVD, Farmiga said about making this movie: "I have had a life long struggle with faith. I've struggled to define it; to make it clear; to make it real; to understand it."

Being such a well known and successful actress, Farminga was interviewed many times about her film choice for her directorial debut. Many times she was directly questioned about her own faith (she was raised Eastern - Ukrainian - Catholic) and what she was trying to accomplish by choosing a film about Christianity.  In many ways, she reveals that her involvement in this film was personal and purposeful.

In one of the interviews, with Mother Jones magazine, she eloquently explained her faith and her motivation in making this movie:

"My parents instilled in me the importance of defining God for yourself. Just because I'm telling a story about a woman losing faith is not my rebellion against what I grew up in. If anything, it really affected the way I approached the story, and in fact, approach everything. I don't judge my characters—or this community, which I came at without dukes up...

"Do I pray? Yes. Prayer is very important to me. You don't necessarily have to be religious to pray. I'm incredibly spiritual. There are like tens of thousands of denominations; I don't fit in any one of those denominations comfortably. But I have a very personal relationship with God. It's hard to talk about because it is so personal. I also have a lot of frustration with religion—organized religion—because it's man-made, because it's man-regulated. And it has nothing to do with my relationship with God....

"The depth of exploration of the male psyche and the female psyche [in film] is uneven. I see further, deeper renderings of what it means to be a man. And I think it's—well look, most of the central characters are male. And that's part of it....

"But my only job as an actress—as a storyteller—is to provoke discussion. Those are the best sermons. Not the ones that instill dogma."
from Mother Jones magazine - August 2011

Farmiga later admitted in the "making of" special feature of the DVD that the movie became a homage to the faith of her own father and, as she put it, "to keep affection for my heavenly Father."

In Higher Ground, Farminga has given us an honest look at the struggles of women's spirituality in a Christian setting. She has, in this film, also given a great sermon by provoking in depth discussion about the real issues of faith, hope and redemption that are both temporal and eternal.

March 7, 2012

Seeing the Divine in Humanity

Two Unique Films Reveal The Spirit of Humanity:
Cave of Forgotten Dreams & Life In A Day

Occasionally, in the course of watching films, I get lucky. I watched several films in close succession that seem to move me along a deeper understanding of our human condition, our common humanity - and they were delights of the craft of film-making.  Two documentary films moved me further along a deeper appreciation of the human spirit. At the same time, they had disturbing revelations of true and raw humanity. Even though I have been going through my own difficulties in life, these films seemed to bring me to a place of healing in my own humanity with all flaws and failures intact. If we are made in the image of God (as I believe we are), then these films also reveal something about God's image in us, or perhaps it is only a glimpse of divinity in us seen in the reflective medium of film.  See for yourself.

These two films were in theatrical release in 2011 and are currently available on DVD and Blue Ray.

Cave of Forgotten Dreams

An amazing documentary of a slice of humanity from around 32,000 years ago by film-maker and cinematographer Werner Herzog.  He was given almost exclusive access to film inside the Chauvet caves of Southern France. In 1994, the caves were discovered on private property with Ice Age paintings that are the oldest known pictorial creations of humankind. The outstanding natural magnificent cave shadows and the lighting used for filming created haunting images of the cave and the ancient paintings. Many of the wall paintings in the cave are so beautiful and life-like they could be showcased among the greatest masterpiece paintings of any era.

The French government immediately cut-off all access to the caves due to its cultural significance. They gave access to a few archaeologists and paleontologists... and Herzog...  before sealing the cave again to preserve its pristine condition.

Contemporary human visitors are no longer allowed to visit the cave and its paintings in person.  But, through the documentary, Herzog invites us into a place of ancient humanity. Asking scientists to explain what we are seeing, he realizes these paintings and this cave reach into our very soul and reflect the consciousness of our most ancient ancestors and of each of us.

It is clear that there are spiritual intentions in the life-like depictions. Those primitive artists are not painting for themselves, but for their brethren, for divinity, and, perhaps without intention, for us in the 21st Century.

In this cave, where cave bears lived for generations and humans only visited and painted, humans most likely worshipped.  There is a stunning image of a cave bear skull intentionally mounted on a rock facing the entrance.

In one of the interviews, an archeologist proclaims, "with this [Ice Age] evidence, we should not be called homo sapiens, but rather homo spiritualis."

Herzog tells of the footprints of an eight year old human along side the paw prints of a cave wolf.  He asks, "were they friends? was one stalking the other? or were they walking the same places thousands of years apart?"  We may never know, but Herzog, in asking questions, brings the spirit of the cave and the spirit of our most ancient ancestors into the contemporary existential search for understanding our own lives - but with 32,000 years of perspective. With such a long view, there are some things that become clear even as others are obscured, assigned to the mysteries of life that continue around us. 

Here is an official web page:

Life In A Day

(2011) Rated PG-13, 95 minutes, Documentary | Drama

An absolutely important film that clearly demonstrates the global reality of contemporary humanity.  Filmed during the 24 hours of July 24th, 2010,  80,000 submissions, 4500 hours of footage, from 192 countries were submitted to director Kevin MacDonald, who, with some help, put together a 95-minute documentary.

Not only was the project breath-taking in its scope, truly encompassing the entire world, the finished edit is an amazing compilation that flows from one family to the next, from one country to another, telling an amazing story of a single day of 21st Century humanity.  All that is important to our common humanity makes an appearance, including birth, childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, middle-age, coupling, parenting, old-age, illness, death, career, occupation, eating, and worship - all with diversity, yet an underlying unity. 

At the end of the day's journey, one is in awe of the raw and honest presentation of humanity. The spirit of this venture will open minds and hearts to our common struggles, move us to tears AND make us giddy.

Although English is the main language throughout the film, there are moments in several different languages with subtitles.

National Geographic official web page:

January 22, 2012

Lingering at the Gate: The House is Black

Khanah siyah ast ~ The House is Black ~ 1962
Written, directed and edited by Forugh Farrokhzad
In Farsi with English subtitles

Leprosy. Even the word provokes images of deformity and isolation, ghoulish and horrific. In the bible, lepers are sinners cursed with obvious defects related to their sinfulness. They were among the unclean. To be in contact with them brought uncleanliness to you and the community of faithful. 

"There is no shortage of ugliness in the world," are the opening words of this short Persian film, "The House is Black." We see a disfigured woman staring into a mirror wearing a beautiful veil that barely covers her disfigurement.

To be cured of leprosy, to be cleansed, required an act of God, both in healing and cleansing.  It is hard to say whether the 20th Century disease of remote tropic areas is the same as the biblical disease, but it was feared well into the 20th Century.  In this movie, the Islamic devotion and worship is Shi-ite, but even religion succumbs to the spirit expressed.  Compassion and loving care for lepers became a Christian practice as early as the Second Century - a tradition maintained throughout the centuries that have passed. 

In the Syriac Orthodox Church Calendar that dates back to those first centuries of Christianity, there is a Sunday dedicated to leprosy in Lent. At least once each year the lepers are remembered in churches throughout the world, but one Sunday in a year seems a paltry offering of time and prayer in the light from this film.  The makers of "The House is Black" lived twelve days among the lepers in the colony in Tabriz, Iran during the filming. Forugh Farrokhzad fell in love with two of the children, adopting them shortly after the filming.

     Here are links to three sermon/articles about lepers and the Leprosy Sunday:
     Healing and Thanksgiving
     The Stigma of Our Disease
     Spiritual Leprosy

In the 21st Century, leprosy is a nearly curable illness if diagnosed early and there is quality treatment for those whose disease has advanced.  Very few remaining lepers live in isolated colonies. However, there is still rampant a spiritual leprosy that deforms a person's character and keeps one unclean. 

"The House is Black" is a profoundly deep and penetrating look at humanity and spirituality with beautiful black and white cinematography in documentary style by cinematographer Soleiman Minasian.  Despite the careful, honoring and respectful camera work, this is a movie that probably could not be made today without hearing criticisms of exploitation. 

Forugh Farrokhzad died in a car accident in 1967, a few years after this movie was made. The cinematic gem she left behind has already influenced other Persian film-makers. Her heavy editing style was decades ahead, so the short film does not have any sense of meandering as many foriegn films of the era seemed to do.  Writing these compliments, it is hard to imagine the immediate obstacles she encountered: the film's subject as well as the film-maker's gender.

However, after seeing this movie, I could not imagine a world without this amazing film.  It is a necessary journey into a leper colony in 1960s Iran, but you get the sense it could have been filmed a hundred years ago. The profound deformities may hide the loving and faith-filled humanity presented, but not for long. It is also a necessary journey into the viewer's heart.  We are left with a sense that it is not the lepers who are lacking love, faith, and joy. Rather it is we who are lacking.

The beautiful script in the Persian language of Farsi with original poetry, facts and quotes are mixed in a smooth manner so that the humanity and the spirit is not bogged down by the medical reality. The English subtitles are subtle - sometimes too subtle and hard to read, but do not distract from the images. The poetry read by poetress and film-maker Farrokhzad, using quotes of Rumi and other observations, brings the viewer to a place they have never been before nor could be imagined. The simple image of a leper on crutches walking into toward us through the natural light in a grove of trees is one of the most beautifully filmed moments in cinema.

Listening to a woman's voice in a language not my own, reading spiritual poetry over the powerful images of human faith and love despite the deformities of a devastating disease, is a must view for all who love film and all who love humanity.

When the movie ended, I was stunned with its power and changed forever.  At times, during the 22 minutes of the film, tears rolled down my cheeks. At other scenes, I could not smile broadly enough. I felt I had met God himself in "The House is Black." The film reminds all of us that physical disease and deformity are never constraints for the goodness and love in the human soul.  God is revealed in the least of our brethren.

Toward the end of the film, there is an image of the gates of the colony closing. I found that have been lingering at those gates since.

+ + +
The House is Black page on Facebook:

View the film on-line:
OR stream below:

House is Black
22 minutes - directed by Forough Farrokhzad
(Farrukhzad, Furugh ; Gulistan, Ibrahim ; Makhmalbaf, Muhsin, Gulistan Film Co.)
Facets Video; Facets Multimedia (Chicago, Ill.) 2005

The Facets DVD includes a 19 page booklet which includes essays by Chris Marker, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Susan Doll.  It also includes two short films directed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who called "The House is Black - the most important Iranian film ever made."

1. Images from the Qajar Dynasty (1993, 18 min.)
A short documentary made while the filmmaker was preparing his feature Once upon a Time, Cinema. The Qajar (aka Ghajar) family ruled Iran from 1785-1925. The film shows rare photos and early films shot at the Shah's court, along with family portraits.

2. The school blown away by the wind (1996, 8 min.)
The school for nomad children seen in the film Gabbeh, is the subject of this drama. An old man visits the classroom, and at first mistaken for an inspector, eventually is revealed as a former teacher of nomad children who has stopped by to refresh his memories of this happy time in his life.