2016-06-30
(RNS) A hybrid of narrative, documentary and computer imagery that blends science and spirituality may not seem like an obvious contender for the coveted title of the next "Blair Witch Project." But "What the #$! Do We Know," fueled by Internet chatter and simple word-of-mouth accolades, is turning out to be the latest little movie to make a big splash. "What the Bleep," as it's commonly known, started small, a $5 million personal project dreamed up by software entrepreneur William Arntz, who set out to explore the convergence of scientific and spiritual ideas. The movie debuted in Yelm, Wash., in February and has steadily gained traction through word-of-mouth marketing. Seen by some as a kind of New Age answer to "The Passion of the Christ" and other films that adhere to traditional religious teachings, the film will play on 151 screens this weekend, up from 115 last weekend. The box office exceeded the $5 million investment early this month. Cutting between a storyline featuring an unhappy photographer, played by Marlee Matlin, and interviews with physicists, medical doctors, a biologist and two spiritual teachers, the film addresses reality, consciousness and emotional addiction. In the process, it also critiques much of organized religion's notion of an all-powerful God who judges right and wrong. Together with his two co-directors, Betsy Chasse and Mark Vicente, Arntz opened the film in Yelm because it's the home base of Ramtha's School of
Enlightenment, a gnostic college run by a woman who claims to channel a 35,000-year-old warrior, Ramtha, from the lost continent of Atlantis. All three filmmakers are students at the school. Soon the film moved on to Portland, Ore., and film festivals like the one in Sedona, Ariz., places they figured would be hospitable to a movie whose spirituality stems not from traditional religion but from the idea that according to quantum physics, you create your own reality. "Out in the pop cultural mainstream this information never gets out there, this way of looking at the world," Arntz said in a conference call with Chasse, Vicente and Religion News Service. After months at art-house cinemas -- where "What the Bleep" remained for upward of 20 weeks, far exceeding most theater owners' skeptical expectations -- Samuel Goldwyn Films and Roadside Attractions noticed the numbers. The partnership picked up distribution, opening the movie Sept. 10 in selected cities around the country. It's shown no signs of slowing down. Its success stems in part from an apparent hunger for movies with explicitly spiritual themes. Arntz earlier had described "What the Bleep" as a movie for the "religious left." "Then I changed it to the metaphysical left," he said. "I was trying to come up with a term for a group of people in this society that has never been properly identified." Douglas E. Cowan, an assistant professor of religious studies and sociology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, agreed that the film's target audience had been underserved by Hollywood. "In general -- and `What the Bleep' is an exception -- films reflect very traditional religious values. They don't actually push any boundaries other than the narrative tension 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, and critics of "What the Bleep" have raised concerns about the film's message, wondering if science may have been at least oversimplified in order to buttress the directors' beliefs.

Ramtha the ancient warrior speaks through a woman named J.Z. Knight, who has claimed to channel Ramtha since the late 1970s. Knight appears in the movie as one of the spiritual teachers.

At least four of the other 12 interview subjects either teach at the school, owned and run by Knight, or have written books that are included in the curriculum, which dabbles in science to provide a foundation for the teaching that each person is God. None of the experts interviewed in the movie is identified until the end of the film, and viewers are left unaware of the filmmakers' association with Ramtha, though the movie's Web site does make the affiliation clear. Knight's tactics have come under fire since the 1980s, when she began earning millions of dollars from the sale of Ramtha's messages and predicted cataclysmic events. Today the school offers workshops and retreats starting at $800 for beginners. "They're encouraging people to question the basis of their own beliefs, but they do not encourage any kind of questioning of Ramtha's," said Joe Szimhart, who helped to orchestrate interventions in the 1980s and 1990s for those worried about family members or friends involved in what they believed to be harmful new religions or spiritual groups. Szimhart is currently consulting with a woman whose marriage fell apart after her husband joined Ramtha's School. David Albert, director of Columbia University's master's program in the philosophical foundations of physics, took issue from a purely scientific view with the main thrust of consciousness acting as the primary determinant of reality.
"The claim of the movie that quantum mechanics shows us that consciousness is the ground of all being and that it follows that by thinking in the right way we can make reality the way we want it to be, is absolutely false," he said. Albert said he spent hours with the filmmakers during his interview about two years ago explaining his opposition to "the kinds of ideas they were pushing for. ... Not a hint of that shows up in the movie." Defending the decision to leave Albert's and others' objections on the cutting room floor, Arntz said that he never envisioned a strict documentary on consciousness and quantum physics. Instead, he said, "We set out to describe a certain worldview." Marketing material and the film's Web site nonetheless describe "What the Bleep" as at least part documentary, and no disclaimer or narrator explains to viewers that dissenting opinions may lurk among the rosy picture of Amanda reaching peace after she takes a trip "down the rabbit hole of mysteriousness."

"This is our interpretation," said Chasse, who nonetheless emphasized the movie wasn't meant to exclude anyone, no matter their religious beliefs. "This is not a dialogue between those who believe this and those who don't."

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