(RNS) A hybrid of narrative, documentary and computer imagerythatblends science and spirituality may not seem like an obvious contenderforthe coveted title of the next "Blair Witch Project." But "What the #$!Do WeKnow," fueled by Internet chatter and simple word-of-mouth accolades, isturning out to be the latest little movie to make a big splash. "What the Bleep," as it's commonly known, started small, a $5millionpersonal project dreamed up by software entrepreneur William Arntz, whosetout to explore the convergence of scientific and spiritual ideas. Themoviedebuted in Yelm, Wash., in February and has steadily gained tractionthroughword-of-mouth marketing. Seen by some as a kind of New Age answer to "The Passion of theChrist"and other films that adhere to traditional religious teachings, the filmwill play on 151 screens this weekend, up from 115 last weekend. The boxoffice exceeded the $5 million investment early this month. Cutting between a storyline featuring an unhappy photographer,played byMarlee Matlin, and interviews with physicists, medical doctors, abiologistand two spiritual teachers, the film addresses reality, consciousnessandemotional addiction. In the process, it also critiques much of organizedreligion's notion of an all-powerful God who judges right and wrong. Together with his two co-directors, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente,Arntzopened the film in Yelm because it's the home base of Ramtha's School ofEnlightenment, a gnostic college run by a woman who claims to channel a35,000-year-old warrior, Ramtha, from the lost continent of Atlantis.Allthree filmmakers are students at the school.
Soon the film moved on to Portland, Ore., and film festivals liketheone in Sedona, Ariz., places they figured would be hospitable to a moviewhose spirituality stems not from traditional religion but from the ideathat according to quantum physics, you create your own reality. "Out in the pop cultural mainstream this information never gets outthere, this way of looking at the world," Arntz said in a conferencecallwith Chasse, Vicente and Religion News Service. After months at art-house cinemas -- where "What the Bleep" remainedforupward of 20 weeks, far exceeding most theater owners' skepticalexpectations -- Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions noticedthenumbers. The partnership picked up distribution, opening the movie Sept.10in selected cities around the country. It's shown no signs of slowingdown. Its success stems in part from an apparent hunger for movies withexplicitly spiritual themes. Arntz earlier had described "What theBleep" asa movie for the "religious left." "Then I changed it to the metaphysical left," he said. "I was tryingtocome up with a term for a group of people in this society that has neverbeen properly identified." Douglas E. Cowan, an assistant professor of religious studies andsociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, agreed that thefilm'starget audience had been underserved by Hollywood. "In general -- and`Whatthe Bleep' is an exception -- films reflect very traditional religiousvalues. They don't actually push any boundaries other than the narrativetension that allows those values to bring about resolution in the end....This movie is obviously a reflection of what (the filmmakers) believe." Mass-market spirituality, though, cannot help but touch a nerve, andcritics of "What the Bleep" have raised concerns about the film'smessage,wondering if science may have been at least oversimplified in order tobuttress the directors' beliefs.
Ramtha the ancient warrior speaks through a woman named J.Z. Knight,whohas claimed to channel Ramtha since the late 1970s. Knight appears inthemovie as one of the spiritual teachers.At least four of the other 12 interview subjects either teach at theschool, owned and run by Knight, or have written books that are includedinthe curriculum, which dabbles in science to provide a foundation for theteaching that each person is God. None of the experts interviewed in the movie is identified until theendof the film, and viewers are left unaware of the filmmakers' associationwith Ramtha, though the movie's Web site does make the affiliationclear. Knight's tactics have come under fire since the 1980s, when shebeganearning millions of dollars from the sale of Ramtha's messages andpredictedcataclysmic events. Today the school offers workshops and retreatsstartingat $800 for beginners. "They're encouraging people to question the basis of their ownbeliefs,but they do not encourage any kind of questioning of Ramtha's," said JoeSzimhart, who helped to orchestrate interventions in the 1980s and 1990sforthose worried about family members or friends involved in what theybelievedto be harmful new religions or spiritual groups. Szimhart is currentlyconsulting with a woman whose marriage fell apart after her husbandjoinedRamtha's School. David Albert, director of Columbia University's master's program inthephilosophical foundations of physics, took issue from a purelyscientificview with the main thrust of consciousness acting as the primarydeterminantof reality. "The claim of the movie that quantum mechanics shows us thatconsciousness is the ground of all being and that it follows that bythinking in the right way we can make reality the way we want it to be,isabsolutely false," he said. Albert said he spent hours with the filmmakers during his interviewabout two years ago explaining his opposition to "the kinds of ideastheywere pushing for. ... Not a hint of that shows up in the movie." Defending the decision to leave Albert's and others' objections onthecutting room floor, Arntz said that he never envisioned a strictdocumentaryon consciousness and quantum physics. Instead, he said, "We set out todescribe a certain worldview." Marketing material and the film's Web site nonetheless describe"Whatthe Bleep" as at least part documentary, and no disclaimer or narratorexplains to viewers that dissenting opinions may lurk among the rosypictureof Amanda reaching peace after she takes a trip "down the rabbit hole ofmysteriousness."
"This is our interpretation," said Chasse, who nonethelessemphasizedthe movie wasn't meant to exclude anyone, no matter their religiousbeliefs."This is not a dialogue between those who believe this and those whodon't."