By Dick Staub
Religion News Service
At the 2011 Sundance Film Festival, I saw 26 films in six days. If this festival is about storytelling, this year's big story is about our universal spiritual quest. Here are a few snapshots.
"Higher Ground" tells the true story of Carolyn Briggs, who became disillusioned with and left the Jesus movement, only to find that she missed the comforts of real community and certain belief. Director Vera Farmiga told us that Briggs didn't leave religion, but rather an "impoverished expression of the Christian religion."
"Septien" is the quirky story of eccentric, troubled but loveable brothers. An evil incident in the distant past is the cause of their madness, and a Christian prophet arrives to rid them of their demons. Screenwriter Michael Tully confessed he is not religious, but thought it would be refreshing to infuse the Christian story with, well, sincerity.
In "Abraxas," Japanese director Naoki Kato tells the story of Jonan, a teenaged punk rocker-turned-Buddhist monk. When his passion to create music returns, he has trouble reconciling it with his religion. Kato confessed that he, too, has no religion, but added, "Humans can't live without both music and spirituality."
In "The Redemption of General Butt Naked," documentarians Eric Strauss and Daniele Anastasio tell the true story of Joshua Milton Blahyi, who claims to have murdered over 20,000 during Liberia's civil war in the 1990's. After a conversion experience and a new career as an evangelist, Blahyi seeks the forgiveness of families affected by his violent past. The filmmakers follow the evangelist over five years, drawing the audience into the complexity of the man and the messiness of his redemption.
In "Position Among the Stars," filmmaker Leonard Retel Helmrich traces the lives of one Indonesian family in the slums of Jakarta. Grandmother Rumidjah is the Christian matriarch who lives in a small village and struggles with her sons Bakti and Dwi, who have both converted to Islam. Her self-centered granddaughter, Tari, is still Christian but is more influenced by Western pop culture. Grandma has invested heavily in Tari's education, but when she travels to Tari's high school graduation, the visit reveals major conflicts between traditional values and the modern world.
In "Kinyarwanda," Alrick Brown tells the true story of the Mufti of Rwanda, who during Rwanda's 1994 bloodbath forbade Muslims from killing, and opened his mosque as a place of refuge where Muslims, Christians, Hutus and Tutsis could come together to protect each other.
"Gun Hill Road" is a sensitive, believable exploration of the clash between a macho Latino father who returns home from prison, and his teenage son, Michael, who comes out as Vanessa, a transgender woman.
Polish filmmaker Lech Majewski's "The Mill and the Cross" is a creative, devotional homage to faith as it translates Pieter Bruegel's 1564 epic masterpiece, "The Procession to Calvary," into an imaginative narrative of the characters in the painting.
"Salvation Boulevard" and Kevin Smith's "Red State" both exploited religion for entertainment. "The Ledge" pits an atheist against a believer, but screenwriter Matthew Chapman chooses a mentally unstable caricature for his Christian protagonist. Chapman dedicated the screening to atheist Christopher Hitchens and to murdered Ugandan gay activist David Kato who, he said, was dead because of the "influence of American evangelical Christians."
Braden King's "Here" actually delivered the most transcendent moment at this year's festival. The film tells the story of two wandering souls: Will, a satellite-mapping engineer conducting a survey of Armenia, and an Armenian expatriate and photographer who recently returned home.
As "Here" begins, the narrator explains that in ancient days when explorers met, each would share their map of their world with the other.
It's a useful metaphor for Sundance. We arrive with a map of our known world, and we see and hear stories revealing maps of other worlds. Only when we realize our map is a map of OUR world, and not a definitive map of THE world, can we begin to grasp reality. And only then can we learn to love and understand each other despite our differences.
It's a particularly important reminder in the world of religion, where lines, boundaries and territories are quickly drawn and guarded, and the sharing of variant maps is discouraged at best and forbidden at worst.
Dick Staub is author of the just-released About You: Fully Human and Fully Alive and the host of "The Kindlings Muse". His blog can be read at www.dickstaub.com.