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How Documentary Films In Communities Of Faith Can Transform Lives

As a movie and a movement lover who will be toggling between the Oscars this Sunday night and news of this nation’s tumultuous times, I wonder what it would look like if the power of film was maximized to equip communities of faith to advance justice.

I’m a documentary filmmaker. I have seen the power of documentary film to transform lives. I am also an organizer for justice in communities of faith. I have seen the power of communities of faith to transform lives. What I yearn to see is the full power of documentary films in communities of faith to transform lives.

My dad was a civil rights preacher.

My church is a sanctuary church, a part of our 21st Century underground railroad.

In this country, there are millions of progressive people of faith and tens of thousands of institutions living with the mandate to heal and repair the world. But all too often, communities of faith can’t or don’t see the struggles for justice of people and places they have not and may never come to know.

Documentary films can provide windows into these worlds.

And yes. In this day of Black Panther, the case should be made for using all kinds of film and media as organizing tools in communities of faith, but I want to lift up the particular value of documentary to provide windows into worlds folks need to see.

Recently, I have witnessed three examples that give me clues as to what powerful integration of film into faith-rooted organizing can look like.

Example 1: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance Economic Justice

Last summer I was at a two-day teach-in and rally for the Poor People’s Campaign. 50 years ago, the activist community of which the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a member was leading a campaign to liberate poor people in this nation, a campaign led by poor people. Today, a community of activists all across the country has taken up the mantle of that campaign and will be participating in 40 days of civil disobedience between Mother’s Day and Summer Solstice of this year .

At that state-based teach-in I attended, the facilitators shared clips from Orlando Bagwell’s Citizen King to remind us that grassroots movements led by poor people, all kinds of people, and people of faith have shaped this nation’s history.

These clips transported those gathered in the room – poor and working class activists, organizers and leaders of faith – into fellowship with those who came before us on whose shoulders we perch. Our imaginations were kindled to see what is possible as well as to grapple with the mistakes of movement that has come before us. The window into the civil rights struggle that Citizen King provided restored our hope, reminded us that times have been bad before, but still we have risen to the challenge, and fired us up for the campaign ahead.

Example 2: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance Immigrant Justice

Around the same time, I attended a daylong civil disobedience workshop for leaders of faith and moral courage who wanted to put their bodies on the line and bring their communities and congregations into the movement for immigrant justice in the age of Trump.

The training was facilitated by leaders from the campaign to unseat Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, Arizona, renegade sheriff who was directing his police force to go after immigrants in ways that were outside the law.

In order to bring the gathered faith leaders into the culture and practice of that campaign, the facilitators opened the session with a clip from Daniel Devivo and Valeria Fernández’s documentary film Two Americans. It catapulted us into that movement moment, thousands of miles away and a year or so ago.

Again, the window through which we could witness the challenges and triumphs of the work made us believe we could win and showed us ways others have done so, leaders of faith offering up their moral authority in the community on behalf of most impacted people whose leadership they flanked. (The picture above is a still from Two Americans representing the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, a local Phoenix pastor committing civil disobedience. Rev. Frederick-Gray is now the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association.)

Example 3: Doc Film Helping People of Faith to Advance LGBTQ Justice

I have learned some lessons in my own work at the intersection of faith-rooted justice work and documentary filmmaking. The last film I directed, Love Free or Die, told the story of the church putting its life on the line for LGBTQ justice, following Gene Robinson, the first openly gay person to be elected bishop in the high church traditions of Christendom, and the movement he was a part of that changed policy and culture in church and state in the U.S. and abroad.

We folded our national TV broadcast and 400 community screenings of the film into a strategy to advance the marriage equality work of 2012 – in particular the campaigns in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington.

At Auburn, where I work, we had participated in research for the previous two years on how to move conflicted Christian voters to support LGBTQ equality because they were Christian and not in spite of it.

During the year of our screenings, we used that research to equip those who attended the 400 screenings to engage their conflicted Christian friends and family in conversation to help them vote on the right side of history. We also worked with the state campaigns, in partnership with national LGBTQ justice organizations, to train leaders of faith to make the moral case for equality in public and in the press.

In all four states in which we did this work, marriage equality was won – not the ultimate battle for LGBTQ people in this country, but a step in the right direction. In the two states that conducted exit polls to determine what swung the vote, the Christian messaging and messengers were named as one of the top determinants.

I can’t specify what role our movie screenings, friends and family plan, and research and message training played in those victories, but I did see deep relationship between media makers, communities of faith, and movement workers, and that, in and of itself, was an advance in my own practice of engagement with communities of faith around a documentary film.

Key to movement work, to faith traditions, and to documentary film is right relationship – creating a practice and a world in which the full humanity of all is honored and the conditions needed for all to flourish exist.

May we filmmakers explore new and better ways to be in right relationship with communities of faith. May we share our stories of success and failure with one another, so that together we create a practice from which other filmmakers can learn as they engage communities of faith.

For justice to be won, faith communities and filmmakers need each other – to imagine the world as it should be and to bring it into being.


A version of these remarks was offered this past week at GoodPitch Local in Dallas in the company of filmmakers, organizers and funders committed to maximizing the power of media for positive social change. The Auburn team is profoundly grateful for the invitation to be a part of this transformative model of movement building.

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These Fierce Films from Sundance Give Us Hope in the Face of the Terrible State of the Union

The State of the Union is dreadful. Are there any signs of hope in this era in which the Death-eaters have taken over the Ministry of Magic?

Just back from the Sundance Film Festival, I am struck by the string of great David-and-Goliath documentary films I saw there.

Taking on the NYPD: Crime + Punishment tells the story of twelve cops of color, a private investigator, a kid incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, and a mother who will not give up until her son is sprung. Together, they expose the widespread corruption within the New York Police Department, which has been pushing cops on the streets to fulfill quotas of arrests, to “get their numbers up” with extra credit for felonies, rather than focus on keeping the peace.

Taking on money in politicsDark Money reveals how big money is buying elections, focusing on a series of races in Montana for state senator and the governorship. An out-of-work reporter, a retiree lawyer, and a team of other everyday folk chart a path through deception and denial and discover evidence that leads to the conviction of the state Senate Majority Leader for breaking campaign finance law and to a renewed effort in the state of Montana for ethical elections.

Taking on corporations poisoning our waterThe Devil We Know investigates the history of the DuPont Corporation dumping chemicals into the Ohio River, promising that what was dumped poses no threat to humans, even as an entire herd of cattle is found suddenly dead near the waste dump site. In the one-company town of Parkersburg, West Virginia, too many children are born deformed. Seven deadly diseases are suddenly legion. And a handful of local red-state residents break from the company culture to take down the corporation.

Taking on warThe Oslo Diaries tells the little-known story of secret meetings that took place in Norway between representatives of the Israeli state and the Palestinian people. A handful of brave souls are sent secretly to meetings that, if they were to be discovered, might lead to the death of all involved and the undoing of all they hold dear. This small group of enemies attempts to broker the impossible peace that has eluded so many. In the process, they bond and through this unlikely bonding, Israel and Palestine come as close as they have to date to a two-state solution and to the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Now you might say: Yeah, but look what happened next. Hard-right Israelis assassinated Yitzhak Rabin or perhaps, as it is says in the movie, assassinated the possibility for peace.

But that’s not how I see it. Call me Pollyanna but I marveled at the bridge these political underlings almost built to peace in the Middle East. Sure it failed, but we would be foolish not to see the victory, or at least a possible path to victory, in the story. And possibility is precious right now.

And then there’s Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock in which indigenous activists refuse to allow the Dakota Access Pipeline to cut through sacred Lakotan lands and threaten the life-giving waters of the Cannonball River. Do they win? Yes. Is the pipeline built? Yes. So what’s the win?, you might ask.

Well, in Akicita: The Battle of Standing Rock we see the birth of a new generation of activists willing to risk everything – I mean, everything – to decolonize their land, their bodies, their lives. 25 of those activists were at Sundance (weird, right?) and they named the frontlines on which they are currently laying down their lives – Bears Ear, British Columbia, the Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota and Wisconsin. They are not defeated. They are in movement.

In this gross time, in which we are led by gross leaders that bring out the grossest impulses in the Americans who support them, we need to have an imagination for winning, an imagination for taking down Goliath. We also need an imagination for the world as it should be. Watching the Israeli and Palestinian officials sharing ripe fruit and cigarettes together, seeing the fired journalist who has created his own online news source in the age of corporate-controlled media break the story that breaks the back of evil, witnessing the activist bring DuPont to it’s knees – the activist who was born with half a nose because his mother was faithful to the company that refused to recognize the sacrifice she made for their profit, I recover or discover the imagination I need to topple this evil empire in power.

Watching the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock where indigenous people from tribes as far afield as Iceland and New Zealand convene along with a next generation of activists certain that first nations people must lead us out of the hell colonization created, watching the dance, hearing the music, beholding the best in our human nature blocking corporation and state in the face of all violence, mace and mayhem, I recognized that we can do this.

We can do this.

Imagine that.

PS: I have linked the film titles to the filmmakers’ websites who made them. Write to them. Ask them how you can bring these films to your communities. Who knows how they will respond, but if you are like me, you need to see Goliath go down right about now.

PPS: And if you need help, write Sarah Masters at She runs the new Hartley Media Impact Initiative at Auburn, committed to getting the best media to all you leaders of faith and moral courage to help you stand for justice.

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All I Have is a Voice

Here we are again. Stunned. Whispering in twos and threes via text, in office kitchens, swapping lines from poetry as if we are in Fahrenheit 451 or some sci-fi movie in which we can be arrested, deported, disappeared for having a heart.

Last night, I attended a gathering at my church of people who wandered in from the stupor. We hadn’t done this since 9/11. Same time. Same place. Same terror in our eyes. Same need to know that we are not alone and that it is not illegal to be human.

And before 9/11, there was the first time I walked into an ACT UP meeting, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, back in 1987. 200 terrified souls were gathered on a Monday night simply to know what the hell to do and whether or not we were still human, whether or not there was any value to that, whether or not we could save our lives so suddenly vulnerable, and how it felt to be together, instead of so terrifyingly alone.

Some of my moments yesterday were when my co-worker erupted in staff meeting and said that he is afraid his child will be taken from him, that his family is so fragile, it only having been made legal within the last five years.

In the same meeting, a workmate leaned over and whispered that another colleague thinks she will have to leave by January, rather than be deported.

Another was at the gathering last night, sitting across from my friend, who is Muslim, as she described the call she was going to be on at 10pm to determine how to keep Muslim families safe for the next seven days. I wondered, what happens on the eighth?

Another was dinner last night when I made my parents-in-law, Jews who feel like we’ve been here before, promise not to talk about the election, so that our girls — for whom I am terrified — could have a little peace and feel held by our love. I failed. I lost my temper with my mother-in-law for the first time in 24 years when she said that what I am doing at work is not enough to save us.

So what is enough? What do we do? And if we are not the ones who are in danger, then what do we do for those who are, before the new policies begin to float down these city streets like death eaters, those lethal jailers in the Harry Potter stories who steal our souls and rob us of our desire to fight for all that is good.

The answer, of course, is in the poem to which I have turned since I learned what it meant to be human.

All I have is a voice.

It is the time for poets and prophets and speaking our love for one another publicly, personally, politically, regularly, gratuitously, dangerously – to our neighbors, our workers, our estranged friends, our family members, the ones who voted with us and the ones who voted against us, who perhaps are just as terrified as we are and that’s how we’ve arrived at this moment.

We must have the moral courage to show up in places and for people we have not before yesterday bothered to visit. We must interrupt our routines and love one another. If we do not, we will find ourselves, as W.H. Auden writes in his poem, lost in a haunted wood, neither happy nor good.

I went to ACT UP because people everywhere were dying, people like me and not like me. The president and the mayor, along with most polite company, wouldn’t mention it. There seemed to be nothing to be done.

But entering a room of 200 people that Monday night, holding each other, doing things, lifting our voices, art, bodies made in the image of God – infected or not, felt like life in the moment, like hope in the lifting, like the world for which we longed in the room. And our coming together did change things, did save lives. Of course it did. That’s just how it works. We are only strong together.

And so last night we came together: the undocumented college student and the adopted child of gay dads, the Muslim mother of an American veteran and the singing rabbi, my friend from whom I am estranged who hugged me to tell me we are in it together, my husband, my broken-hearted pastor, and so many people I have never met before. I am praying we will meet again next week and until this nightmare is over.

For so many, it did not begin yesterday. May we gather, act up and speak out until it ends.

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenceless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

(W.H. Auden, from “September 1st, 1939”)

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You Have Something to Say That We Need to Hear

You have something to say that we need to know.

You were not born for nothing. In you, in the terrific, singular way life has shaped you, there is a truth that is yours to tell. You may say: Not me. You may think: What I have done in this lifetime is to follow orders well. Not true. There is an undercurrent. You dream. You have something to say that we need to hear.

I was the one at the table whose comments always disappointed. I was the one who never glittered. But like a geode, somehow even I knew that deeper within was a hall of chandeliers that dazzled, the place God designed, beauty beyond all estimation, who I really am.

Now I am a prophet whisperer. I wash the feet and the words of the visionaries of our time, listening them into their small, still voice, teasing it out and into a roar.

I am also a documentary filmmaker. My job has been to do justice to each real person I have filmed, to get inside that inner chamber with my camera and return with the footage that reveals God’s truth about the grandeur of each unique soul.

Smash a hammer to the geode that is you. Shine a light on what is most beautiful, heartbreaking, and real for you in life and in your heart. Then let this vision be known, let us be made right, made whole, be dazzled by your truth.

If you don’t, something better than diamonds, than all Rembrandts, will go eternally unnoticed. God, blaming no one but God’s self, will ransack rooms in heaven with rage.

I don’t know exactly why, but life has taught me this: There’s healing if you do. Flowers will bloom from your palms, your curved spine will uncurl like a stem straightened by the sun. Yes, it may also kill you or we may kill you when you tell the truth about us all, but better to live in the light of truth than to never live at all. Better for you and for us, I mean.

Tell me the truth. What is it? I need to know.

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The Power and Pleasure You Can Unleash When Your Inner Artist Joins Your Inner Activist

What would happen, do you think, if we unleashed our most creative selves as we’re considering what action to take to right the wrongs in this world?

Too often, we think of artists as freaks of nature. Fact is: we are all artists. We are born that way. Look at the stuff you drew at age three. It’s brilliant.

For most of us, shortly after age three, society, mean teachers, older siblings, and our own inner soul-crusher convinced us that the way we make art is inadequate, stupid, embarrassing, and so we left art-making to those who for some reason refused to listen to the mean voices within and without. But here’s the bad news: the price of kicking our creativity to the side may be the end of the world.

What makes me crazy about Oscar week is that it feels like it’s intentionally designed to make us, the viewing public, distinguish ourselves from the ones who should be allowed to create, the geniuses, the true artists. But Selma, one of this year’s Oscar nominees, tells a crucial narrative about unleashing the artist in every activist that we desperately need to hear and heed.

Selma is the story of a group of people collectively creating and performing the most powerful “ethical spectacle” they can think of in order to move American hearts and minds to support Civil Rights. Stephen Duncombe, co-founder of the Center for Artistic Activism and author of the thrilling book Dream: Re-Imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, defines “ethical spectacle” as an action that ravishingly “illuminates and dramatizes real-world power dynamics and social relations that otherwise tend to remain hidden in plain sight.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his colleagues knew that the only way they could get Americans to support the Voting Rights Act was to viscerally render inequality in the consciousness of those who had not experienced it firsthand. These activists did not go to art school, yet the devastating images of their protests in Selma that tore through mainstream media — the peaceful marchers brutalized by police on horseback during the first march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge and the determined multitude that returned to march again — were the direct outcome of the organizers’ aesthetic strategy.

And it worked.

Of course, the lesson to be learned from Selma is not that the way to advance every social cause is to put on a good march. Because people think they’ve seen it all before, most marches don’t even make the news today.

The lesson I am hoping that we do learn from Selma is that when we unleash our inner artists and create “ethical spectacles” so surprising, so fresh, so disturbing that they tell the whole story in one striking image or scene, we can capture the public imagination and inspire the public will to change the course of history.

At Sundance this past month, I saw two soon-to-be-released films that show how we can save lives and save the world when we marry our creativity with our activism.

Larry Kramer: In Love and Anger is a study in “ethical spectacle.” Kramer is an artist whose outrage incited AIDS activism in this country in the 1980s, humanized the way the medical industrial complex treats suffering people in clinical drug trials, and expedited the discovery of the medication that saved Kramer’s life and the lives of millions around the globe who are now living with AIDS. In the film, Dr. Tony Fauci, Director of the National Institute for Allergies and Infectious Diseases since AIDS first became part of our public consciousness, states: “There’s medicine before Larry Kramer and medicine after Larry Kramer.”

What Kramer and a host of artists and activists in New York (including myself) did was take art and theater into the streets. From putting a rather large condom on the home of the notoriously anti-gay, anti-sex-education North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to throwing ashes of our loved ones onto the White House lawn, we expressed our outrage in ways that the news and the public could not ignore.

In another Sundance documentary, Racing Extinction, film director Louie Psihoyos and his environmental activist friends are seen projecting gorgeous images of the animals we have lost or are likely to lose to extinction on buildings across the nation, including the entire exterior of the United Nations building in New York. The result is breathtakingly beautiful; it stops crowds, gets constant news attention, goes viral, and drives people in droves to sign onto the activists’ education and action campaign to save dying species.

As I write these words, I am sitting on a bench in the Matisse exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art as thousands of people stream by me to admire the paper cut-outs the old guy made while lying in bed. Over and over, I hear people saying: “I could do that” and I find myself wanting to cry out: “That’s right! You can!”

So I say to you, to myself, to all who believe in freedom: think of something that outrages or excites you, a change you pray might be made in the world. Now, with friends, in your journal, on Pinterest, or with scissors and construction paper, spend two hours imagining what kind of spectacle you might dream up to capture our imagination, move our hearts, make us care, make us act differently, make us act up. Then, with that same group of friends or flying solo if that’s your style, make it happen.

The fact is that our lives depend on all of us bringing all we have to our justice-seeking movements, including our creativity. And there’s a fringe benefit to marrying art-making to our activism. When we unleash our creative spirits, when we banish those soul-crushing voices that tell us that we’re not creative, we can unlock all kinds of joy and soul liberation. I could use a little bit more of that in my life and activism. Couldn’t you?

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Leaders Like MLK Are Not a Thing of the Past, But We Must Shape the Moral Frame of Our Day

Watching Selma in the middle of a crowded movie theater this week, I found myself doubled over in emotion. I knew the faces and their voices. My daddy was a white preacher who was run out of his North Carolina pulpit by the KKK for his civil rights support. In 1964, he and my mother moved to Alabama. She was a teacher who was among the first to work in the integrated schools. I was born the following year, six months after the Selma March and two years to the day after four little girls were murdered at a church up in Birmingham.

Not surprisingly, I got hooked at a young age on the power of prophetic witness. Today, I train leaders of faith and moral courage — as King called them in the film, “people of God and good will” — to speak their truth and stand for justice in the media. A documentary filmmaker with a theological education, I couldn’t bear the fact that the household names who spoke for faith and values in this country in the 1980s and ‘90s — people like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Ralph Reed — bore no resemblance to the prophets who risked and often gave their lives to stand for freedom in the name of faith just decades before.

So I launched a program with my colleague Katharine Henderson at Auburn Seminary to identify and equip today’s voices of moral courage. What I have learned is that voices like King’s are not a thing of the past; they are courageously leading movements in communities all over America. Over the past ten years, we have trained 5000 of them — Muslim, Christian, Jewish, Secular Humanist and more. But I have also learned that the movement and its leaders must up their game to carry the moral frame over and against the mighty and monied Right. It is when the public will requires nothing less that our jaded and cantankerous congress and politicized Supreme Court are most inclined to stand for justice for all.

And so, I want to offer three recommendations to all who believe in freedom and are praying that 2015 is the year that future history books and major motion pictures show that we stood as communities and as a nation for justice for all.

First, lift up your voice. Much has been written over the last 10 years about the fact that this is not your grandparents’ movement and that there is strength in the decentralized, multi-vocal collective outcry that we see from Tahrir Square to Occupy to Ferguson and the streets of New York after the senseless slaying of our hometown neighbor, Eric Garner. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for and we all must unleash our inner prophet. What I loved about Selma was not just King’s testimony, but the power of John Lewis’ voice, the meaning of Viola Liuzzo’s and Annie Lee Cooper’s witness.

But second (and on the other hand), there is still a critical role locally, nationally and internationally for the singular prophetic voice who captures the public imagination and changes history.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber II and his Moral Mondays protests have inspired the nation as he galvanized the people of North Carolina to mobilize against well-funded attempts to redistrict the state — a surreptitious move to effectively undo the great gains of the Civil Rights Movement by keeping the poor, people of color and the progressive majority in North Carolina from carrying the vote.

Sister Simone Campbell, when the Vatican came down on her posse of nuns for being too outspoken about poverty and not loud enough about abortion and homosexuality, took it as an opportunity. She purchased a bus to proclaim good news to the poor all across the land. Now, on any given day, you can hear her moral call across the media landscape; it seems to me that even the new pope has borrowed a page from the good sister’s book.

There’s Bishop Gene Robinson. For four years, I personally watched history tip in the wake of his moral stand for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. In my 2012 documentary about the Bishop, Love Free or Die, we see policy dramatically change in church and state right before our eyes. He stood down daily death threats for the better part of a decade and stood up for justice on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at President Obama’s first inauguration. I don’t doubt that he gave moral cover and framing to Obama when, at his second inauguration, he so famously put equality for LGBT people on the national agenda for the first time in American history.

And new prophetic voices are emerging. Last month I worked with two young Union Seminary students whose unequal treatment at the hands of the police — based on their different skin colors — made plain the racist state of affairs in this nation and in the NYPD. Their everyday story tore through the news cycle that week from the New York Times to MSNBC. I had the feeling that I was witness to the birth of two future leaders who we will be hearing from in the years to come, not unlike the young leaders in Selma whose early experiences in the Civil Right Movement led to lifetimes of history-changing service.

But third, and perhaps most important, no matter how important your point of view, you cannot expect the media to come to you for comment on the news cycles of the day. You’ve got to make your own news cycle. As it was in the days of the prophets who launched our faith traditions in the first place, so it is today. Where would Sister Simone be without her bus? Where in fact would she be without Sound of Music and Sister Act? She knows the role she is playing in the public imagination and public square and does not shy away from understanding how this news business works.

To grab headlines and capture the attention of national news cameras in 1965, selecting Selma, Alabama was an important and strategic move. King and his colleagues studied the various Southern towns, searching for the right backdrop and cast of characters — not unlike Selma‘s director Ava DuVernay had to do — in order to achieve success. What Selma and history show is that you have got to work to capture attention before you can move hearts and minds.

Walking out of the movie theater last night, I knew that my daddy needs to come and take my sixth-grade daughter, a girl of color named for him and my mother, to see Selma. I imagine he might make it real to her the strides we have taken as a nation in just a generation that make it possible for her, a Latina with two gay dads, to flourish. But in this land where still today too many are treated unjustly just because of who they are and how they look, my prayer is that my daughter Alice gets hooked as I did on this grand tradition of speaking our truths so that all may be free, and that in 2015 our cries for justice flow like a stream more mighty than this nation has ever known. Having worked with so many powerful voices in this current generation, I believe we can. May it be so.

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A Few of My Favorite Films

As a documentary filmmaker who considers spirituality life’s most fascinating dimension, I always wondered why there weren’t more great documentaries on matters of faith. A few years ago, I was asked to teach a course on documentary films and filmmaking at Union Theological Seminary. It was my hope that I might find the best films on themes of religion and spirituality and encourage my students to widen that circle of great films by making their own. In the process, I identified a handful of what I consider documentary masterpieces (or near-masterpieces), and I want to share my favorites with you. I encourage you to add to the list by writing to me about your favorites, so that my students and I may be further inspired.

(Ron Fricke, 97 minutes, 1992)

One criterion for a great documentary is that it makes the most of its medium–a marriage of sound, picture, and storytelling. Baraka has no dialogue and no conventional plot, but even without these narrative devices, it tells with great art, economy, and ravishing images the story of life on earth. In Baraka, the camera travels the world and alights like an angel for a moment on a shoulder or a stone or a wave–observing the quiet and roaring movements of creation. It captures the truth about human nature, our need for ritual, our quest for meaning, and our troubling relationship to our home in a way that seems to explain everything without breathing a word. One student likened this film to a prayer and watching it to joining the filmmakers in meditation.

The Reincarnation of Khensur Rinpoche
(Tenzing Sonam & Ritu Sarin, 62 minutes, 1991)

This remarkable film follows a group of Tibetan monks who seek out their reincarnated master, thought to have been reborn as a small boy. The documentary focuses on the relationship between the former master’s favorite attendant and the boy as they become acquainted or–depending on what you believe–reacquainted. It is filmed beautifully in classic cinema vérité style (meaning the camera appears to follow life where it leads). The movie feels to the viewer as if the camera was never even there. “The Reincarnation of Khenshur Rinpoche” invites us into a year in the life of this Buddhist community, the intimate bond between monks, and the experience of a country boy who is told at the age of 3 that he is a wise master and great leader.

A Life Apart: Hasidism in America
(Menachem Daum & Oren Rudavsky, 96 minutes, 1997)

This movie’s tone is so difficult to achieve–at once respectful, critical, and heartwarming, and at all times leaving viewers to draw their own conclusions about the benefits and challenges of a separatist religious community. There is an array of traditional documentary techniques here: Daum and Rudavsky follow a handful of peoples’ lives but also weave in narration (by Leonard Nimoy and Sarah Jessica Parker), “talking head” interviews with experts, and in-depth history lessons. Given this funky stew of style choices, it is hard to put one’s finger on what makes the film so affecting. There is no resisting, however, the filmmaker’s invitation to view the world from the perspective of people who have come so close to extermination. They fix our gaze on the magical quality of a community so grateful for life, one committed to being happy and to the deeply moving good-heartedness of the individuals.

(Diane Keaton, 80 minutes, 1987)

This quirky film brings a 1980s MTV aesthetic to the sometimes sleeping-pill affect of interview-driven, “talking head” documentaries. Directed by movie star Diane Keaton, it explores the views of a diverse crowd of Californians on the afterlife. This random group of contemporary Americans are intercut with images of heaven, hell, God, and the meaning of life manufactured by both American religious organizations and Hollywood over the past century, so that the film becomes a sort of dialogue between the images and the speakers. The film’s heart is deeply good, and its insights are often breathtaking. If nothing else, it pushes viewers to think about how we would respond to the questions: What is life all about, and What does it add up to in the end? Teenagers love this one, and so do I.

Black Is…Black Ain’t
(Marlon Riggs, 86 minutes, 1995)

Black Is…Black Ain’t is not principally about religion, but it has an excellent segment about a Pentecostal, principally gay congregation and is made by one of the most important documentary filmmakers of our time. What it’s about on its surface is identity: The church, for Riggs, plays a large part in his understanding of being African American. On its deepest level, however, the film is about making sense of life in the face of suffering, and the scene at the church represents both transcendence and embodied power in a way that provides what feels like answers to life’s biggest questions. Riggs didn’t finish making this film before he died of AIDS in 1997.Riggs is a poet whose medium is documentary. One of his films was at the center of the National Endowment for the Arts battle in the ’90s. His work will be exhibited and screened for centuries to come.

(Howard Smith & Sarah Kernochan, 88 minutes, 1972)

This film won the Academy Award in 1972–the only documentary film on religion I know of to have done so. Ironically, Marjoe doesn’t explore the richness of religious experience but rather exposes its shady side. Focusing on a circuit evangelist who really wants to be a rock star, the movie represents the enterprise of ministry as a con and the passion of believers (filmed exquisitely by some of the best documentary cinematographers of the century) to be simple-minded foolishness. The film offers a delicate portrait of a religious young man coming of age in a cultural revolution. He is a lost soul and a leader of lost souls. Watching him wander, for me, is painful, hysterical, moving, and very disturbing.

It is important to mention the groundbreaking work of Bill Moyers. Programs like the The Power of Myth (conversations with Joseph Campbell), Genesis: A Living Conversation (a roundtable, interfaith discussion about the book of Genesis) and Amazing Grace (a study of the history and power of the old Christian hymn) have sparked crucial and exciting dialogue on issues of faith and religion. The reason his films do not rank on my list of favorites is that his goals appear to me to be principally journalistic rather than artistic; as a result, much of the richness available in the medium of film is left unmined. I am excited to report that there is a number of good documentaries on religion heading our way. Just this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Sandi DuBowski premiered his film Trembling Before G-d, a lovely exploration into the lives of lesbian and gay orthodox Jews. And Blackside Productions, makers of Eyes on the Prize, will soon team with PBS and broadcast its latest documentary series, This Far by Faith, a history of the African-American church. I am hoping that such fine productions signal the wave of the future.