Spirits and Ceremonies: How to Construct Religious Experience in Documentary Film

  • Author(s): Jouko Aaltonen
  • When: 2016-01
  • Where: Journal of Religion & Film
  • For a documentary filmmaker there are several challenges in presenting religious phenomena. It is easy to document the rituals and the sensory level of events, but how can religious experience be represented? How can the invisible be made visible? What are the means to do this visually, aurally and cinematically? There are also special epistemological problems, when we are dealing with documentary film. Previous documentary studies have emphasized the indexical relationship between the object in front of the camera and its representation. But when one is constructing spiritual, abstract, conceptual, religious or theological phenomenon, how can it be done? These questions are pondered through two cases, two documentary films directed by the writer. Kusum (2000) is a documentary film about traditional Indian religious healing. Demons have settled within a 14-year-old girl, Kusum, and the film follows how a healer named Bhagat fights against them. Another film, The Leap (2012) tells the story of a Finnish tram diver, who is looking into spiritual paths and joins the Hare Krishna movement. The film charts Keshava´s personal ´leap of faith´ and the process over two years as he faces the dilemmas of reconciling his personal life with a calling of a demanding religion. The writer reflects his own creative work and advances knowledge about practice. In analyzing these documentaries and solutions implemented during their shooting, the approach can be considered practice-led artistic research. Besides illustrating religion, its cult, rites and rituals, the film-maker has a wide selection of cinematic means to interpret religion. There are at least six different strategies for the filmmaker to reconstruct religious experience: verbalizing, rituals, metaphors, meditative scenes, transcendental film-making and pure fiction. Some of these strategies are used in Kusum and Leap. Altogether documentary film is an effective tool for interpretation of religious and spiritual experience.

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