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What Puts the Spirit in Spiritual Films
by Sharon Smith
Do these look like dangerous men? Richard Alpert/Ram Dass (left) and Timothy Leary are featured in the new doc 'Dying to Know'. photo: courtesy T. Leary
SPIRITUAL PRACTICES, EXPERIENCES AND
consciousness expansion, in general, are at levels unseen since the 1970s and many recent films are responding to that. Not surprisingly, the term “spiritual film” is being bandied about. But what exactly does it mean?
“Dying to Know: Ram Dass and Timothy Leary” (2015), the documentary recently in theaters, certainly fits.
Aside from being a boisterous buddy flick about two Harvard psychiatrists, who became counterculture heroes in the '60s, and an alternative adventure story, since Leary’s escapades often involved the law and Ram Dass's (formerly Richard Alpert) journeys to India, the quest for enlightenment is central to both men's lives.
Directed by Gay Dillingham (her first film) and narrated by Robert Redford (his 132nd), “Dying to Know” covers its protagonists’ numerous highs and lows, involving not only their psychedelic experiences (depicted with the help of animation) but also their search for god.
But many different kinds of film can be described as spiritual. Here is a tentative list, without regard to differences in popularity or artistic merit:
• Documentaries about so-called spiritual people like “Dying to Know,” or Jennifer Fox’s film, “My Reincarnation” (2011), about the son of the Buddhist teacher Namkhai Norbu.
Jeremy Irons as the South American priest trying to keep Robert DeNiro's character on the moral high road in Roland Joffé's 'The Mission' (1986). photo: courtesy R. Joffe
• Films scripted from religious literature. This category used to start and end with Cecil B. DeMille's “Ten Commandments” (1956), starring Charlton Heston, but now includes Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” (2004), which film critic Roger Ebert called “the most violent film he’d ever seen.”
There is also Roger Aller’s recently released animated film “Khalil Gibran’s The Prophet” which reworks the immensely popular 1924 mystical book. Produced by, and with a new female character voiced by, Selma Hayek (whose grandfather was Lebanese, like Gibran), it shows a Middle Eastern culture guided by the peaceful and tolerant Sufism once prevalent there.
• Films focusing on a dilemma faced by 'spiritual 'professionals.' “Black Narcissus” (1947), Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s film about nuns in the Himalayas going through a crisis of faith; Roland Joffé’s “The Mission” (1986), showing a Jesuit priest struggling to convert a remote South American tribe; or John Patrick Shanley’s “Doubt” (2008), a film about guilt and paranoia in a Catholic school.
• Films rooted in religious philosophy and feeling, like Robert Bresson's (“Diary of a Country Priest”, 1951) and Yasujiro Ozu's (“Tokyo Story”, 1953) or a radical reinterpretation of a religious story, like Pasolini’s “Gospel According to St. Matthew” (1964), where Jesus is portrayed as a social revolutionary.
• Films that may have an agnostic or atheist perspective but explore the depths of the human soul, like those of Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni, or that have a story that expresses feelings of transcendence or oneness with the universe, like Terrence Malick’s 2011 “The Tree of Life” about growing up in Texas, or “
Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter…and Spring
” (2003), the Korean film by Ki-duk Kim about a Buddhist monk;
With its plot peregrinations and philosophical ruminations, 'Waking Life' (2001) is one of the more 'spiritual' films around. photo: courtesy R. Linklater
• A more general search for the meaning of life but not necessarily in overtly “spiritual” terms, like Louis Malle’s “My Dinner with Andre” (1981, a classic in this genre), Richard Linklater’s rotoscoped “Waking Life” (2001), where a man in a dream wanders among the hipsters of Austin discussing the meaning of the universe, or Gillies MacKinnon’s “Hideous Kinky” (1998), a wild, picaresque adventure with an enlightening attitude, starring Kate Winslet and transpiring on the “hippie trail” in '60s Morocco.
• A story about a non-human reality, angels or the afterlife, like Albert Brooks’s hilarious “
Defending Your Life
” (1991), where the protagonists’ lives are judged after death, or Wim Wenders’s “Wings of Desire” (1987), a lovely cinematic meditation about an angel who decides that being human is better.
• Films about wisdom achieved on a quest: George Lucas’s “Star Wars” series (1977 to the present), with Yoda as the
, or Victor Fleming’s classic, “The Wizard of Oz” (1939).
• Film as outright meditation like Godfrey Reggio’s "Qatsi Trilogy" (“Koyaanisqatsi”,1982, “Powaqqatsi”, 1988, “Naqoyqatsi', 2002), essays of visual images and sound that chronicle the destructive impact of the modern world on the environment; “The Color of Pomegranates” (1969) Sergei Parajanov’s surreal biography of the Armenian troubadour Sayat Nova, created with a beautiful montage of non-narrative images.
And there are many films that have no ostensible connection to spirituality at all but nonetheless inspire spiritual feelings. The beautiful scene of the
plastic bag being blown by the wind
in “American Beauty” (1999) is a great example of this.
The filmmaker Sharon Smith, and this article's author, sits with one of the many Indian mystics she hopes will give her insight in her movie 'Saturn Saved Me' (2015). photo: by S. Smith
My own interest in the genre—if it is one—comes from having recently completed a film of my own which has been described as spiritual: “Saturn Saved Me” (2015), now in film festivals (see the trailer
). If I were to summarize, it is a meditation on the East/West dichotomy and the midlife crisis that led me to travel to India looking for some answers in the early 2000s.
It’s a road movie with a twist, documenting my encounters with astrologers, diviners and more regular folks in the exotic atmosphere of India, and, along the way, sometimes in spite of their advice, my journey to greater self-understanding.
Some have called “Saturn Saved Me” uplifting, others feel it proves that the practitioners of so-called spiritual arts are all charlatans, but almost everyone finds it an amusing and revealing depiction of a personal journey.
As a seasoned traveler, a professional astrologer, and a practitioner of various Asian spiritual disciplines (Tai Chi, qigong, yoga, meditation, etc.), I am well acquainted with the terrain commonly called “spiritual.” But, like many people who think they “know,” my journey held many surprises and ultimately led me into totally unexpected territory.
Sharon Smith's animated alter ego gets the spiritual finger in Smith's 'Saturn Saved Me'. illo: Petrok Animation
Maybe I was naïve in thinking that the way to cure my spiritual malaise was to go to India, the motherland of spirituality. The astrologers I consulted there told me I was living under a curse resulting from selfish and arrogant behavior in a previous lifetime. And that curse led to my being a single, childless and, in their opinion, unhappy woman. Much as I resisted this diagnosis, as I heard it repeated over and over, it began to take root in my consciousness.
I was becoming increasingly discouraged and hopeless when one astrologer explained to me, with clear and convincing astrological logic (yes, there is such a thing!), that the supposed curse was not binding upon me, because “Saturn has saved you.”
The astrological meaning of that insight was comforting, but I didn’t experience its deeper significance until I had worked on the film for ten years. One of the astrological signatures of Saturn is the capacity for discipline and patience over time. I would never have heard that astrologer’s words if I had not gone to India, but it was the Saturnian discipline of seeing my film project through to the end that revealed to me that, in fact, Saturn HAD saved me (astrology is metaphor, after all).
Filmmaking, like every art, is a form of alchemy. The base matter of raw experience, including my troubles and confusions at the time, was transmuted into a higher understanding—of myself, of life, and perhaps, to a small degree, of that astonishing country, India.
Smith's lovely if simple animation, by Petrok Animation, humorously leads us to the film's denouement. illo: Petrok Animation
Is “Saturn Saved Me” a spiritual film? I would say so. In its intent, although a documentary made on a shoestring, it is similar to the fictional “Hideous Kinky,” without the production values and, of course, the wonderful Kate Winslet.
But now a stern Saturnian voice demands to know: What exactly does that mean, “spiritual"? I confess I really don’t know. Thank God it’s impossible to pin that meaning down!
In addition to being a filmmaker/photographer, Sharon Smith teaches Tai Chi, does astrology and lives in Manhattan; she can be reached
Posted on Oct 01, 2015 - 10:00 AM