Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category
Monday, August 17th, 2009
“When your spirit is happy, that is true religion.”
There was once a guy named Gendun Choephel. He was a Tibetan buddhist monk who criticized the conservative religious culture and government of his home country. An intellectual heavyweight, Choephel traveled all over seeking a deeper understanding of the world and of his own country. Any buddhist monk who has sex with women and goes on drinking binges is not just a philosopher and a man of the world, he is also on the short list of real-life Most Interesting Men In The World.
“Drinking beer and sleeping with women can be very instructive”
Choephel was also a painter and a writer, and his writings have become terrifically important to Tibetan people and expatriates in the years since his death. Still a controversial figure, his legacy remains a powerful one. Filmmaker Luc Schaedler goes on a trip through India and Tibet to trace the history of this man who is almost completely forgotten in the world outside Tibet. Schaedler interviews people who knew Choephel, and people who have been influenced by his writing and his philosophy.
That being said, as a film Angry Monk tends to drag. Certainly, this man was a terrifically interesting figure, and this movie is one of the few documents in the world that really traces his life and deals with his ideas. There is a terrific website for the movie, you can click on that here. The content on the website is just about the same as the special features on the movie - a written interview with the director and some written excerpts from Choephel’s writing form the bulk of the content. The movie is interesting, and the man is interesting, but it’s on such a small scale that only people truly interested in Tibet, Buddhism and politics would be truly engrossed.
Angry Monk comes out August 18th from First Run Features.
Sunday, June 21st, 2009
“Tolerance and intolerance, apparently in equal measure.” To hear the review
To hear the review
Perhaps no book in history has been more misunderstood than the Koran. And not just by Western societies who view the book as a violent, scary book that gives rise to extremism, but also by those who consider themselves to be experts on the holy text. Although to suggest those people misunderstand the Koran is perhaps not accurate. I think that any text considered to be holy, whether it be Koran or Bible or something else, is rarely misunderstood. By their very nature, these books lend themselves to hundreds or thousands of different interpretations, and there is no real way to determine which is the “correct” one.
I have a real problem with anyone who talks about the “correct” interpretation of books like the Koran, as several religious figures do in Inside The Koran. It seems to me that there is no such thing as a “correct” interpretation of anything. That’s what makes it an interpretation. But as this documentary makes clear, it isn’t just biased interpretations of the Koran that are dangerous, it is also the purposefully selective reading of the book, and the wilful ignorance of certain passages, that is truly dangerous. The Koran says that if an adulterer, or a thief, acknowledges his or her mistake and repents, that they should be forgiven. In countries where public stonings and hangings and beheadings still take place, this passage is conveniently ignored.
In fact, the film takes a look at certain cultures and religious leaders who use the Koran to their own ends in a more over way – the Saudi officials who edited the text of the holy book to specify Jews and Christians as the enemies of the Muslim faith, and even added text referrin to modern weapons like tanks and missiles as an example of the proper way to retaliate against the enemies of Islam. How people can read that today, believing that it is the Word Of God from 650 AD, is beyond me. But the culture of various Muslim countries is more important, most of the time, than the book that unites the whole faith.
Which makes one of the most interesting revelations of the movie less interesting. A copy of a written Koran dating from about 720 or so is discovered, and the text appears to have been edited several times. This goes against the teachings of the faith, which say that the words have been preserved, unblemished and unchanged, since the 600s. But if Saudi officials can edit the text to promote terrorism and anti-semitism, then it probably shouldn’t matter that the text was edited 1300 yeas ago. It’s still happening today.
The documentary opens with a self-styled martyr reading from the Koran, and this is, of course, one of the biggest central themes of the film – does the Koran really say that it is the obligation of every good Muslim to wage war against the perceived enemies of the faith? It’s pretty easy to look at the faith from a Western perspective and say – who cares if it does or not? Why are you following a book anyway? Even if it does say that, it’s still just a book. But of course, it is not that simple. There are so many Muslim countries in the world, and so many of those countries base their cultures almost exclusively on the teachings of the Koran, that the interpretation of the text is all-important.
And this is what makes the difference in cultures in Muslim countries so incredible. One woman, a human rights activist interviewed for the movie, says that in Cairo in 1974 you would not have seen a single veil on the streets of Egypt. Now, however, the vast majority of the women walking the streets, including this activist herself, wear the full covering, hiding their faces and their bodies with only their eyes visible. This is the other big topic tackled in the film. The treatment of women in the Muslim religion, and the differences between Turkey and Iran and Saudi Arabia and other Muslim cultures.
“Our facial expressions are like another language…it seems to me that covering the face is like cutting off one’s tongue – taking away a form of communication.”
This is the assessment of the narrator, who is questioning a Muslim woman who covers her face in deference to her husband. (It’s my assessment too, and that of many Westerners, I expect.) But most of the women interviewed in the movie disagree. Most of them have another perspective on the niqabs and the veils, and they feel that it brings them closer to God and that they wear them by choice. But then, just like the other facets of the Muslim religion, there are vast differences from culture to culture when it comes to the covering of women.
Some of the more brutal practices of Islam are investigated during Inside The Koran. Honour killings, female genital mutilations, and public executions are touched on briefly. I think I would like to have seen a little more about this – specifically about the reasoning behind not allowing young girls to go to school in some countries and the general oppression of women in those areas – but that could be a whole documentary unto itself. And the general point of the movie is that in the end, the bad stuff that comes out of the Koran doesn’t really come out of the book, but rather from the culture itself and the way they want to interpret the Koran.
If you want to cover your women up, then you decide that the Koran says they ought to be covered. If you want to hate Israel, you decide that the Koran speaks against Jewish people. And although the Koran is explicit about the sanctity of life and the sinful act that is suicide, you can justify suicide bombings if you try really, really hard to re-interpret some passages and try really, really hard to ignore the live-and-let-live ones. (There is one fun moment in an otherwise very serious movie that suggests that the “correct” – again I hate that word – interpretation of the text says that upon their death, martyrs will receive seventy-two grapes to eat. Not seventy-two virgins.)
And of course, like any good documentary, when this one is over each person who watches it can put their own “interpretation” upon what they have seen. Just like the Koran itself. And I have done so – I took several things away from this movie and here’s an example. The man who, at the beginning, is explaining why his wife is completely covered, really bothered me. He says that women must cover up completely because “everything about them is seductive”. And in keeping with that idea, he begins to cover up his daughters. From the age of three. If you’re even considering the possibility that something about a three-year-old could be “seductive”, then there are some serious problems with your rationale.
More than anything though, this film made me want to read the Koran. It is a loose collection of “guidelines” for life that follows no chronology at all – totally unlike any other bible. By its very nature, it is incredibly open to thousands of different interpretations. Some of the scholars in this movie say that the Koran is pretty clear that no one is closer to God than anyone else, and that it speaks out explicitly against any kind of clergy, priests or religious officials. They just don’t make sense with the Muslim faith. But there are a lot of people making their livings as religious leaders in the Muslim world, and this would be an inconvenient thing for them to acknowledge. It would certainly mean they would lose their power. And maybe that wouldn’t be such a bad thing.
An informative, comprehensive and important documentary, Inside The Koran comes out June 23rd from First Run Features.
Sunday, June 21st, 2009
To hear the review
To hear the review
The Bible Unearthed is a four-part TV series from 2005 that examines the history of the Bible. How much of it was based on actual events that took place at the time of the Bible’s writing, and how much of it was invented by the people who wrote it. Which is cool for people like me, because I’m fascinated by the origins of religious texts and I find it very interesting to separate fact and fiction when it comes to those texts. It would also be a very interesting DVD for people who are into archaeology, for it is through archaeology that the veracity of Bible verses is ascertained. Not me though. I find archaeology to be extremely boring. Colour me dull (and I won’t blame you) but I prefer watching talking heads.
Thankfully, there are some fascinating talking heads in The Bible Unearthed, out June 23rd from First Run Features. These are the biblical scholars and archaeologists who are so interested in the history of the bible that they have dedicated themselves to archaeological excavations trying to uncover the truth. They have the same curiosity I do, you see, but they are active about it. I, on the other hand, am too lazy to get off my couch and do a bunch of research. So it is very convenient for me and my beer and my bowl of kettle chips that someone else has done the work and the research and the analysis, and broken it down for me.
Now, I watch a lot of stuff like this. Although I am an avowed atheist, I am still utterly mesmerized by all things biblical, and I am always seeking to understand why people believe what they believe, or worship what they worship. But because I watch so many documentaries of this nature, and read so many books about it, there are times where I get pretty tired of Jesus. Just about every movie about religion has to at least mention Jesus (as does Inside The Koran – stay tuned for that review) in passing, if not focusing on him entirely. So it was a surprising revelation to me that The Bible Unearthed had virtually nothing to do with Jesus whatsoever.
Instead, this is an examination mostly of the old testament, and the books from which the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths all emanated. When Joshua fought the battle of Jericho, did he really use trumpets to bring down the walls? Was there even a battle of Jericho? Was there even a city of Jericho, or a larger war where the Israelites conquered Canaan? This is pretty darn interesting stuff. Through excavations of old ruins, archaeologists are able to determine where buildings were burned, where people were killed and where wars were waged. And of course, where they weren’t. They even go so far as to determine which tribes ate pork and which didn’t, and to try to figure out a reason for that.
I would type in all the revelations I learned watching this documentary here – it certainly sparked a long and involved discussion of religious text in my house – because I enjoy talking about this stuff. But I think that if you too enjoy this kind of stuff, it might be worth picking up yourself. And then you can learn that Joshua fought no battle at Jericho, and that Jericho did not even exist in the time of Joshua, and that…oh, just get the DVD.
Monday, May 18th, 2009
“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter.”
To hear the review
To hear the review
That is the quote, from Martin Luther King, that opens Sole Journey, on DVD May 19th from First Run Features. The documentary follows a group of gay and lesbian activists who took on James Dobson and his Focus on the Family group. Dobson is one of the most influential evangelical religious leaders in the States, and his group promotes a large amount of anti-gay viewpoints. The Soulforce movement sees a group of people – some gay, some family members of gay people, march to the Focus On The Family headquarters with letters to Dobson and his followers pleading with them to stop promoting anti-gay sentiment and spreading disinformation about homosexuality.
We get to meet many of the crusaders along the way, including Chad Allen, the star of the terrific movie Save Me. Although calling them “crusaders” is maybe a misnomer. They are not violent or antagonistic, but instead they take their theory of resistance from Gandhi – non-violent resistance, benign acts of civil disobedience, and a constant powerful message. And the message is powerful. Lesbian couples who have been oppressed by the teachings of Dobson and his ilk. Gay couples who are fighting for equal treatment. And parents of gay kids who see what the struggle is doing to their children.
Most powerful of all perhaps is Judy Shepard, of the Matthew Shepard Foundation. She is the mother of Matthew Shepard, the young man whose murder was one of the most galvanizing events of the gay rights movement. Her tough, positive message is resonant, and heartbreaking at the same time. There is of course a long way for this movement to go. Just last week, in the American Congress, representative Virginia Foxx called the murder of Shepard a “hoax”, a myth propagated by the pro-gay movement to help their cause. Like I said. A LONG way to go. But seeing the courage and the determination and the passion of the people in this documentary, I have no doubt that they will get there. That we all will.
“The constitution has to trump the bible. Every single time.”
Tuesday, April 21st, 2009
“Protect us from committing acts you won’t forgive.”
To hear the review
To hear the review
This seems like an unlikely prayer to offer one’s God. In fact, to me, it seems counter-intuitive. That’s kind of saying to your best friend “I know you would never forgive me for sleeping with your wife, so if you could just keep her far away from me at all times we could avoid that, and I would appreciate it”. It really doesn’t make any sense. Simply the thought itself would likely anger your best friend. Or, at least, it would anger mine. I know this because when I said that previous sentence to him, he was very angry. But wouldn’t your God be angry as well? Wouldn’t it just be easier to renounce your God and move on without that religion?
Well, for me it would. And maybe for you. But A Jihad For Love is about people for whom that decision is simply not an option. Maybe because they live in an area where not being a Muslim is as dangerous as being gay. But mostly because their faith is as strong and as binding as their homosexuality. Like For The Bible Tells Me So, a terrific documentary released last year, A Jihad For Love deals with homosexuality and religion. In this case, it is the Muslim religion rather than Christianity. Both religions offer very interesting perspectives on the gay community. In both cases, it appears to be extremists in those religions that want to condemn homosexuality completely.
Most importantly, however, in both cases a religious case can be made for homosexuality as easily as it can be made against it. This is the reason the Muslims in the film have not turned their backs on their religion. They are fervent believers, and that belief tells them that they are the way they are because Allah made them that way. Almost all of them are aware that homosexuality isn’t something they have chosen to do, or someone they have chosen to be, but rather that they were born that way. And therefore it was Allah who ensured that they would be born that way. And just like the Christian bible, a careful reading of the Qur’an leads to multiple interpretations of the text – either homosexuality is immoral and evil, or it is normal and shouldn’t be punished.
A Jihad For Love doesn’t take a long look at the religion itself. It doesn’t question the religion. It’s just a fascinating look at the people who are caught in the precarious position of being both gay and Muslim. We meet many of these people, gay men and lesbian women, some of whom are willing to come out and speak about their sexual orientation in the context of Islam (one of them, an Imam in South Africa, is a very inspirational figure). Others are willing to speak about their lives, but only under condition of anonymity. Their faces are blurred, and they can’t be identified.
This is the biggest difference between gay Muslims and gay Christians. Gay Christians may be marginalized, and ostracized, and excommunicated and possibly even threatened. But they will likely not die because of their sexual orientation. Gay Muslims face this very real possibility in many countries around the world. Several of the men and women depicted in the movie are seeking asylum on humanitarian grounds, and they are heading for Canada and other safe havens around the world. They don’t want to show their faces because they still have family back in Iran or Egypt or other countries, and they fear that there could be retribution against their families shoudl they be outed.
The point is made in the film that “jihad” doesn’t only mean “holy war”, it means “struggle” as well. And theirs is, truly, a “jihad” for love. For the freedom and understanding to live their lives according to their nature and not according to the extremist elements of their religious affiliation. It’s a painful process, and you can see the struggle in each person as they try to reconcile the two. I like the fact that A Jihad For Love doesn’t talk to a lot of religious scholars, or religious figureheads, but rather lets these people tell their stories in their own words. The whole thing is subtitled – some of it is in French, some of it in Arabic, but the powerful words come through loud and clear.
There are some emotional scenes, like one of a young man on the phone with his mother, unable to see her and not knowing if he will ever see his family again. But the movie doesn’t rely too heavily on emotion either. It doesn’t delve too deeply into the punishments homosexuals face in Islamic nations, and it doesn’t hammer home the negatives. Instead, it shows us a group of people we’ve never seen before, in a heartbreaking situation, and we get a terrific character study that provides great insight into both the gay community and the Muslim community. A Jihad For Love comes out April 21st from First Run Features.
Tuesday, March 24th, 2009
To hear the review:
House of Life tells the story of the Old Jewish Cemetary in Prague, a place where maybe hundreds of thousands of Jewish people are buried. It’s impossible to tell how many people are actually in this cemetary, because they have been buried layer upon layer over the years. There are about 12,000 grave markers still visible, but beneath those markers lie the bodies of countless others. The documentary is brief – 52 minutes – and explores several facets of the cemetary, some more interesting than others.
I’m a History Channel buff, and it’s the history of the place that interests me most. Film maker Alan Miller tells the stories of a few of the names on the grave stones, and in doing so talks about the history of the Jewish community in the Prague ghetto. Some of the stories are myths and legends, like the man molded out of clay who rose up to become the Golem who laid waste to an invading force, or the sticks and stones that were thrown at a local holy man but became flowers when they were in the air and hit the ground. Other stories are about real-life philanthropists and high-society women. The history and the legends are fascinating.
What I don’t care about (and this is just me) is the other stuff. The method by which they clean the tombstones? Don’t care. The maintenance of the area? Not interested. I did find the last little bit a little thought-provoking – the Old Jewish Cemetary now requires admission fees. Religious people who want to make a pilgramage to this holy site now have to buy a pass to a series of historic Jewish monuments in Prague. Many people find this to be crass, others say it’s the only way they can afford the upkeep on the cemetary. But the subject is not really dealt with in depth.
Then again, few subjects in House of Life are dealt with in depth. It’s just a nice documentary about a nice old fascinating place, and at a sub-one-hour running time it plays out like a little special that might run on the History Channel. But, like I said, I am a History Channel buff, and so I did enjoy it. House of Life comes out March 24th from First Run Features.