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.Baraka (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."Baraka" is one of the rare documentaries that often can be found at video stores. It is also available through Amazon.com.
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.This film can be purchased on the web at Amazon.com or Videoflix.com.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."A Life Apart" can be rented at many video stores and ordered online at Amazon.com.