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Glimpsing the Soul through Cinema
by Celik Kayalar
Stephen Olsson on location in Vietnam, documenting the healing journey of a group of traumatized American veterans. photo: courtesy S. Olsson
Come, come, whoever you are,
Wanderer, idolater, worshiper of fire,
Come even though you have broken your vows a thousand times,
Come, and come yet again.
Ours is not a caravan of despair.
—Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi, circa 1250 AD
No wonder the accomplished Marin County filmmaker Stephen Olsson's next project is about Rumi, the 13th century Sufi mystic who has been the best selling poet in the United States for the last decade. When UNESCO declared 2007 "The Year of Rumi," in recognition of Rumi's popularity as well as philosophy of inter-faith tolerance, love and unity of consciousness, Olsson had already been exploring these themes for years. His documentary "Sound of the Soul", 2005, is about the sacred music festival held annually in Fez, Morocco and is narrated by a Sufi.
"Since my studies in visual anthropology [San Francisco State, Temple University, Anthropology Film Center, Santa Fe], the focus of my work has shifted from exploring issues of culture and 'culture contact' to the next layer of the human onion—philosophy, faith, trauma, meaning and personal identification," Olsson told me. An athletic man with a warm smile and sparkling eyes, he is fascinated by the philosophical and spiritual side of cinema.
"I have found the camera to be a wonderful instrument for penetrating the layers of human existence." In fact, Olsson has been working with co-producer Adrianne Anderson on a television/web series called "Global Spirit", see
, the first "internal travel series," he calls it.
Hosted by San Francisco writer Phil Cousineau, with actor-comedian John Cleese as the presenting host, "Global Spirit" takes viewers on a mind and soul-expanding journey which explores the relationships between ancient wisdom traditions, diverse belief systems, metaphysics and modern science. Currently on Link TV, it will be shown on PBS stations across the US starting in 2012.
Meanwhile, his upcoming film about the poetry and teachings of Rumi, "Beyond Translation: Jalaluddin Rumi Meets Shams of Tabriz", co-produced with Parisa Soultani, will launch as a multi-lingual website,
, premiering at the
Mill Valley Film Festival
on October 15th, 2011.
Simultaneously "One Through Love" will be timed with global stream on the project website and be nationally broadcast simulcast on Link TV. Following the launch, Olsson and Soultani plan to have a live, multi-lingual webcast with a different "lover-teacher" or scholar of Rumi every month and include a unique, multi-lingual discussion among viewers.
The Rumi site and movie is co-produced with Parisa Soultani, who is quadralingual and hosts the interactive forum. photo: courtesy S. Olsson
"We call the One Through Love [Rumi] project 'a gathering of lovers' since it presents a gathering of Rumi lovers: scholars, musicians, dervishes and Sufi practitioners from Turkey, Iran, Europe and the US," Olsson explained. "Together with my co-producer and editor, Parisa Soultani, we saw the power of offering film portraits in a website designed to connect people from all over the world."
Soultani is the host the One Through Love site, introducing sections and moderating the post-presentation discussion among viewers around the world. Originally from Tabriz, Iran, which happens to be the home of Rumi's teacher Shams, Soultani is fluent in Persian, Turkish, Arabic and English. Having read Rumi, Hafez and the other great Persian mystical poets from childhood, Soultani has an obvious artistic nature and sings in a Persian-Azeri pop group but to keep the parents happy, she focused on IT after coming to the US four years ago and recently graduated from Sacramento State with a major in international business.
Soultani and Olsson hope that viewers will connect with both the Rumi scholars and each other, and new friendships will form around this philosophically and spiritually as well as poetically profound body of work, a timely and much needed endeavor in today's war-torn and word-injured world.
The Whirling Dervishes, started by Rumi's son in the 13th century, continue dancing today in Turkey, Egypt and Syria. photo: courtesy S. Olsson photo: courtesy S. Olsson
Born in 1207 in Afghanistan, Rumi traveled all over the Middle East as his family fled Genghis Kahn. They finally settled in Konya, Turkey, where Rumi lived the rest of his life. Although his spiritual teachings inspired a mystical sect of followers known as the "Whirling Dervishes," which continue to this day in Turkey, Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, his ability to address the quirks of love, the need for tolerance and peace transcend mysticism and ring modern and true today.
"It’s no big secret that religious misunderstandings, suspicions and intolerance have grown over the past decade, particularly between the Islamic countries and the West," Olsson said. "But, because of our barrage of media exports, 'they' over there, know more about 'us' than we do about 'them.'"
"I’ve had the fortune of working and traveling in many Islamic countries, including living in northern Pakistan for over two years. I’m actually due to go to Kabul in the next few months to help some Afghan friends at the Afghan Media Resource Center, a project I helped start with them back in the late 1980s."
"This is where I got deeper into the poetry and teachings of Rumi, who came from Balkh, in northern Afghanistan. I had many friends in Pakistan, and some of them were Sufis, both Afghans and some local Pakistanis. Masood Khalili was one of them. He is now a diplomat, currently the Afghan ambassador to Spain. Essentially, he’s a Sufi poet, a Rumi lover and is one of the lovers we feature on our website"
"After spending quite a bit of time in Islamic countries, I think many of the deep misunderstandings in the West are based on fear: of the unknown, of Islam as an unfriendly and foreign religion, including the belief that there is no tradition of 'a loving God' within Islam. Christians have come to believe that they, through Jesus, have some monopoly on love as a spiritual practice."
Olsson (dyed beard, center) circa 1986 with two anti-Soviet mujahadin; Olsson first visited Afghanistan in the 70s.
But many people and faiths have that understanding. "Almost 800 years after Rumi," Olsson noted, "The Beatles had it right, about 'Love' being the transcendent force in the universe, with their 'All You Need Is Love.' I think John Lennon was on Rumi's path, so was Bob Marley, whose main legacy to humanity was 'One Love.'"
Watching "Sound of the Soul", 2005, Olsson's documentary on the Fez World Sacred Music Festival, which played on national and international television and at numerous prestigious festivals, it's easy to assume this soft-spoken filmmaker only excels in the arenas of art, spirituality and consciousness. While he does that for sure, he is also a battle-hardened documentarian, literally, with numerous award-winning films covering the harsher side of the human experience, from war to racism.
"Afghanistan: The Fight for a Way of Life" (1987), was cited by the New York Times as one of the best documentary films of the year; "Last Images of War" (1992), won a National Emmy for Outstanding Director; and "School Colors" (1994), a Frontline Special, garnered a Dupont-Columbia Award for Excellence in Broadcast Journalism (both with Scott Andrews). On the television side, he produced and directed "The Active Opposition" series with Peter Coyote and created the Peabody Award-winning series: "Mosaic: World News from the Middle East". He's currently finishing "The Long Road Home: A Soldier's Story," with co-producer Anderson.
"In 2007, a small group of American veterans were accompanying Dr. Edward Tick, an author and psychotherapist, on a trip through Vietnam, in hopes of 'facing their demons' and ultimately healing their severe cases of PTSD. The vets, all traveling with their spouses, had not been back to Vietnam since they served in the war, almost 40 years before," Olsson explained.
Olsson, training Afghan filmmakers and cameramen at the Afghan Media Resource Center, in Peshawar, Pakistan on a grant from Boston University School of Journalism—indeed, Olsson's going back in October to help them do archiving for the Library of Congress. photo: courtesy S. Olssen
"I was there accompanying them with my video camera for three weeks. After almost 60 hours of film footage and three years later, the film is finally being finished, this September. It will hopefully have a rich festival and TV life. This is not an 'anti-war film;' it is a story about the tragedy of war, and the 'soul-loss' that often accompanies the killing of another human being. If there is any healing to come from all of this, it will be when the film is shown to vets groups with either the vets themselves or with Dr. Tick present. Since the film can be such a trigger, we are developing a user’s guide with referral services for vets who may need counseling after seeing the film." Human soul never seems to be far from Olsson's mind or camera.
On a more prosaic note, when I asked him how he funds his projects, he told me: "The film and television projects we do are all funded by foundations and interested individuals, through CEM Productions, the non-profit organization we set up back in the 80s, in the Industrial Center Building on Sausalito’s waterfront (
). We are constantly looking for funding, whether now to finish this Rumi website, and the subsequent Rumi documentary, the Vietnam PTSD documentary, or programs in the Global Spirit series."
Production partners Olsson and Soultani in front of their floating office near Gate 5 Sausalito. photo: courtesy S. Olsson
"The truth is: there is constant proposal writing going on. I spend about 60% of my time looking for funders and fundraising for different projects. It’s the price one needs to pay, it seems, to follow ones’ passions while taking willing viewers somewhere unforgettable, somewhere they have never been before. In the end, it’s all a journey of some sort, isn’t it?"
Camera in hand and whirling around the world, Olsson continues his wonderful journey into the human soul. Rumi would be proud.
is a feature film writer/director/producer. He's also the founder and director of "Film Acting Bay Area" at Ex'pression College for Digital Arts in Emeryville. Originally from Turkey, only 150 miles from Rumi's home town, he currently resides in Berkeley.
Posted on Aug 22, 2011 - 11:33 PM