The premiere of "United 93" seems to have gotten most of the press from this year's Tribeca Film Festival. But Sept. 11 was not the only serious topic addressed in the just-wrapped fifth anniversary installment of the festival--started by Robert DeNiro in the wake of the terrorist attacks to help revitalize Lower Manhattan, economically and emotionally. Films addressing matters of faith abounded, and what follows are reviews of just a few of them:
Flock of Dodos
Randy Olson's "Flock of Dodos: The Evolution-Intelligent Design Circus" is akin to Morgan Spurlock's wildly successful "Super Size Me" in terms of its audience appeal and the use of its personality-filled director as star, but the praise-laden similarities end with a film that both fails to offer a truly fresh take on its subject matter and falls short of serving up any original insight concerning an intense controversy and its attempt to blur the line separating church and state.
Sure we learn all about the ins and outs of the great intelligent design debate. Sure we get to watch and hear a group of the filmmaker's anti-ID scientist cronies react to the outrageous prospect of teaching creationism in schools. But where's the beef?
The slight creative bent of the film is solely reliant on the fact that the filmmaker's mother, Muffy "Moose" Olson, lives across the street from one of intelligent design's biggest proponents, John Calvert, a lawyer presumably consumed by the task of spreading the legitimacy of teaching intelligent design in public schools. Despite his being intimidated, Olson takes the opportunity to meet with Calvert, and finds the proverbial "don't judge a book by its cover" to be as applicable as ever.
Olson visits with other creationists, as well as evolutionists, scientists, members of the now infamous Kansas School Board (both those for and against the teaching of intelligent design), and two former members of the Dover, Penn., School Board. A list of this nature may represent the illusion of balance, but the film refrains from staging a façade of even-handedness and digs its claws deep into the assumingly weak skin of the intelligent design platform. That's not to say that the pro-ID contingent are subject to mockery, but they are unflinchingly and openly contradicted at each and every opportunity.
Entertaining at best, "Flock of Dodos" is not the kind of film one would consider an eye-opening experience. The production lacks the complimentary mix of underlying sincerity and directorial self-effacement one expects from documentaries concerning controversial topics. In making light of the debate, Olson eschews a solid rationale in favor of cartoons, caricatures, and a penchant for in-your-face contradiction. -- By Tim Hayne
The Saint of 9/11
"The Saint of 9/11," a documentary about Father Mychal Judge, presents eerily prescient video clips of this New York City fire department chaplain, who died in the terrorist attacks. In one, Father Mychal is seen leading a Fire Department Mass--on Sept. 10, 2001. In his homily, he says that responding to emergency calls is a form of doing God's work: "When you get on a rig, you have no idea what God is calling you to... But he needs you." In a another clip, he wonders what his own last half-hour on Earth will be like, and whether he will spend those waning minutes of life saving others' lives.
That Judge died doing just that--saving others, even after Mayor Giuliani offered him an escape from the carnage--lends the priest something of a prophetic aura, but Father Mychal's saintliness, the film makes clear, doesn't come from anything so mystical as prophecy. It comes from generosity of heart, a true sense of selflessness and service to others. Relying on interviews with friends, colleagues, and people helped by Judge, the film depicts a life truly worthy of that much-overused term, saint.
But the strength of "The Saint of 9/11" is in the humanity--the vulnerability and fallibility--of its portrayal of Mychal Judge. He was a recovering alcoholic who forged a lifelong commitment to AA. He was a gay man in a church that rejected his lifestyle. He could be vain, and loved to have fun. And in the end, these human qualities served to help him better connect with people, to serve them better.
The film presents countless anecdotes about Judge's generosity. Two stand out for me. A friend gives him a much-needed winter coat, but on the way home from his friend's house, Father Mychal sees a homeless man and drapes the coat around him. And as the AIDS crisis raged and patients were treated as pariahs, even by doctors and nurses who wouldn't go near them, Father Mychal strode confidently into the room of one dying man and kissed him on the lips.
"The Saint of 9/11" was inspiring in the truest sense of the word: It made me want to be more like Mychal Judge--which is to say, a better person. At the end of the film, one friend sums up Father Mychal's life with the statement, "He put his own needs second." It's a simple statement that's almost impossible to live up to. What a wonderful epitaph to an incredible human being. -- By Michael Kress
Part of the festival's "Rediscovered and Restored" series, "The River" is based on the eponymous novel by young-adult writer Rumer Godden, whose work has sadly not remained popular into the 21st century. The autobiographical story is narrated by Harriet, the oldest of five (soon to be six) children of an English couple living in colonial India. The family lives a life between their proper English customs and what Harriet calls "the even tenor of Bengal." "The River" is the story of her first love and foray into adolescence alongside the ebbs and flows of the Ganges River. Harriet, a fledgling poet, is obsessed with the river, watching all the different kinds of people who interact with the body of water.
The remastering of the film (made in 1951) makes "The River"'s colors brighter and more lustrous without distracting from the original authenticity. Even when the principal actors veer into melodrama, they are balanced out by the breathtaking scenery. The India that Harriet sees is a whirling mix of bazaars, kites, and snake-charmers, women in saris applying their makeup and men carrying bales of jute on their heads.
The movie opens with the family and their English diaspora friends celebrating Duwali, the Hindu festival of lights that honors the goddess Kali. The source material and the screenplay (co-written by Godden and Renoir) deserve credit for letting their characters show a genuine love for India. The country is portrayed as diverse and beautiful without a note of condescension. All of the English characters speak at least a smattering of Bengali, and it's clear that they have no desire to leave. The plot of the film may not have aged well, but the colors and textures of India are timeless. -- By Lilit Marcus
Sound of the Soul
In Sufi Islam, the fountain represents purity of the heart. It is so essential; many Muslims have the structures as the centerpiece of their homes. And so it was from the repetitive sound of the flowing water that Sufis learned to use music as a tool to open the heart. The film "Sound of the Soul," embraces this concept by documenting the Fez Festival of World Sacred Music, where, among the fountains, music is celebrated as a way to connect to God.
Yet, sacred music is not the same across the board. Some groups were rowdy with plenty of hallelujahs, hand-clapping and booming tubas, while others were reserved with crystal clear notes that lingered on the air before the next one rolled off the tongue. The filmmakers say the film was created to serve as a catalyst for a dialogue to take place between people and leaders of different faiths. And it is no coincidence the festival takes place in Fez, Morocco--it's a place many people say epitomize how religions can live together in peace.
It is that sense of respect that the film aims to share with the world. The director, Stephen Olsson, created the documentary from footage taken in 2002 and 2004. The film profiles Jewish, Christian, and Islamic groups, hailing from places like Afghanistan, Algeria, England, France, Ghana, Ireland, Mauritania, Morocco, Portugal, Russia, Turkey, and the U.S. This film was a well-needed reminder that religion and spirituality cannot be divorced from the human experience and can have a positive impact. There was tremendous power in watching a Muslim woman cloaked in a hijab listen to an Algerian Jewish woman sing Andalusian tunes.
On the other hand, it was surprising that there was no representation of Buddhist or Hindu music.
Part of the film's message was too, "Hey, look we're not all that different." It is a state of insecurity. Difference is good. Without it, there wouldn't be a challenge to be grounded in our faiths. It is within the unknown that faith is nurtured and fed until we are strong enough to stand on our own in the midst of other faiths and still be secure in our beliefs.
The narrator continues, "Music has no politics, no boundaries, no religion. It is the essence of life; it is the sound of the soul, the sound of love and compassion."
Yet, remembering what unifies us is important, precisely because it shouts to us that we are one human race. And in the face of all the violence done in the name of religion, this movie makes us remember that even though the words are different, often times we are singing the same song. -- By Alana B. Elias Kornfeld
At 33 minutes, Lori Benson’s documentary, "Dear Talula," is richer and more emotionally charged than many feature-length films. The autobiographical short takes an intimate look at Lori, a 37-year-old woman in New York City who, just 14 months after the birth of her first child, discovers she has breast cancer.
Blindsiding Lori—an otherwise healthy woman just getting used to her role as mom—she must cope with the reality of cancer as it "fills up" her life. "Things shift" is how one friend puts it, and Lori can't remember what life was like before. But she refuses to accept her diagnosis passively; she doesn't ask “Why me?" and we don't even see her cry.
First, we see her get her hair done.
Before her mastectomy surgery, Lori splurges on beauty treatments and shops for lingerie, explaining her impulse to feel some sense of control (of her femininity?) before she must surrender to the scalpel. Later, during chemotherapy treatments and still fiercely in "warrior" mode, Lori devotes herself to exploring an almost comical array of alternative treatments and holistic remedies.
But when she takes her bag of herbal goodies to her oncologist to examine, the doctor tells her that none of it is any match for cancer. Lori accepts this with resigned good humor and perhaps not a little relief. This is a story about letting go—of Lori’s idea of herself as a healthy person, of her breast and what losing it means to her as a woman, of believing she can cure herself.
Things shift for Talula, too. In one wrenching scene after her surgery, Lori attempts to nurse, but Talula reaches for the breast that is gone, and despite Lori's attempts to reposition her, won't accept the other one. As a family member carries the distraught infant away, we see Lori break down for the first time.
Lori is also concerned about Talula's own future risk of breast cancer—another thing she cannot control. She decides the best thing she can do for her daughter is to show her "the beauty of life." She achieves this, in the film, at least, by sharing her story with unflinching courage and grace.
This is no "Terms of Endearment"—your heart dips into your gut from time to time, but you don't leave the theater devastated. Instead, "Dear Talula" will move and inspire anyone familiar with the way life can confront us with unwelcome surprises—something from which none of us are immune. -- By Lisa Schneider
Dorothy Day: Don't Call Me a Saint
By now, many of us know the broad sketch of Dorothy Day's life, which is outlined in the short documentary "Dorothy Day: Don't Call Me a Saint." As a young woman in the 1910s, she was a journalist and a socialist, who had an abortion and later a child with a man whom she was living with but not married to. After the birth of her daughter, she started a spiritual journey that led her to break off her love affair and increasingly dedicate herself to the church and to social-justice work. She co-founded the Catholic Worker, a left-wing newspaper that focused on Catholic social teachings, societal transformation, pacifism, and labor issues. She started a "house of hospitality" to feed and house homeless people, an idea that grew into a movement and spread to other cities, and was an ardent activist for liberal social policies and pacifism. Since her death in 1980, she's been on the path to sainthood.
The film does a more than adequate job of relating Day's biography, offering some facts and anecdotes less known to most of us, and showing the extent to which she is revered by many Catholics. It's hour-long length, however, doesn't allow the film to go much beyond asserting facts, though, and so "Don't Call Me a Saint" fails to dig much beneath the surface or examine in any in-depth way her motivations, inner life, and the underpinnings of her philosophy and how it fit in--or not--with mainstream Catholicism of the time. In its clear support for Day's sainthood, it literally mentions once that she'd had an abortion, without looking at how this affected her, and only skimmed the surface of her relationship with her daughter and the conflict she faced between her roles as activist and mother--a conflict in which she clearly chose the former. Even saints have human flaws. It's what makes their sacrifice and accomplishments so meaningful. I wish "Dorothy Day: Don't Call Me a Saint" painted a more rounded picture of the remarkable human being it examines. -- By Michael Kress