[These are the redacted comments I gave at the opening of the 2017 Ray Smith Symposium, “The Place of Religion in Film.” The conference had a $17,000 budget and participants from 10 countries and 10 US states. I enjoyed all the papers and conversations I heard and I want to thank all the participants, and the plenary speakers, for their high caliber writing and thinking.]
The land on which Syracuse University is built is sacred and stolen land. It is, in fact, the traditional territory of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the People of the Longhouse who form the historic Confederacy made up of Mohawks, Oneidas, Onondagas, Cayugas, and Senecas. For some years now, faculty at S.U. are in the habit of opening conferences, lectures, and workshops with a statement like this about the stolen lands that undergird everyday life at our university. Such collegial insistence to name the violence of the past and to note its persistence in our shared present is amplified by the current social and political situation in the United States. Weekly, if not daily, we hear about assaults and crimes against non-white and non-cis persons, groups, and bodies: incidents of minorities being told to “go back to your own country”, transgendered women murdered, Sikh men murdered, swastikas appearing on school lockers and front lawns, and TSA and ICE officers acting with unusual force. In early March of this year a white supremacy group called “Vanguard America,” which carries the web address of “blood and soil dot org”, organized something they called the “The Texan Offensive” in which they “put up…[white supremacist and anti-Muslim posters] at Texas State University, Rice University, the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Dallas, Collin College, Abilene Christian University, and Louisiana State University….”
It may not be true, but it feels as if these acts are occurring in ideological deference to the mounting Federal (and mutating) threat of deportation hanging over immigrants and refugees. And it may not be true, but I’ll warrant a guess that the persons committing these acts strongly wish to forget, deny, or violently erase the history of non-white presence on this land. They wish to forget, deny or violently erase the history of mass genocide of indigenous peoples, the horrors of chattel slavery, and the persistent flow onto this continent of non-white and white immigrants. In this context, to assert vociferously the history of place—to assert that any place is held together by a physical and relational matrix that brims with stories and lives, with factions and contestations, with sacred relationship, with life and death, with joy, and love, and loss—seems today a crucial and necessary act of resistance.
Lately, I have been reflecting on film as a public, as a medium of publicness and a mediation of certain publics. By this I mean not only that a film text can be read and interpreted for its social messages, but also that the success of a film is measured in part by its success in either fitting contemporary discourse on an issue like a glove, or pushing that discourse to change. How does the history of place show itself in the medium of film? How is the sacredness of place displayed and anchored? When I think about the broad rubric of the place of religion in film, I think about the many physical places that evoke religion or take on religious valence in certain films. But then my philosopher proclivities kick in and I wonder about this term place, about its capaciousness and about how its wide pliability speaks also to the wide variability in what counts as historical representation and as cultural memorialization.
Like the concept of religion, the concept of place is multitudinous richly textured. The Stoics, for instance, theorized place as subsisting between the incorporeal void and all that forms the corporeal. Place is not the void and place is not a body, but rather stands as the transition between. Place is where bodies can take shape and do things. This is an unfamiliar and curious sense of place but one that might be fruitful to consider along with particular filmic frames or with Gilles Deleuze’s sense of “camera consciousness.” Religion as this sense of place might be the unthought but felt orientations that are not nothing but also have not yet been actualized into material practices or structures.
These days place is often conjoined and opposed to space, where the latter is something logical or mathematical, while the former is more existential. Space can be Newtonian, that is, the container for experience and events. Or space can be, as it was for Kant, the a priori condition of possibility for human experience. Or we can conceptualize space vis-à-vis the grids of urban and rural territories that mapped and codified the earth’s vastness in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when the commons was closed and private property expanded. Soon afterwards the oceans became territorialized, and the vastnesses between the planets stood as space’s final frontier.
Place on the other hand slots into the experiential and evental. Space might be open to orienting technologies like cartography, but place orients someone or something in some specific manner. In other words, place is relational. To approach place through the analytical frame of relationship is to suture place to the idiosyncrasies of various and specific histories and memories, both collective and individual. The relational construction of place calls us to attend to the power differentials deployed or suffered in one and the ‘same’ place (but is it the same place?), and to record and reflect on how history and memory differently refract the winners and losers of those power struggles in the lived edges, pits, and vortices of place. Near my home here in Syracuse is an old Roman Catholic Church, the membership of which declined to the point where the parish was unable to maintain it. They sold the building and now Holy Trinity Church is the Mosque of Jesus Son of Mary. What is interesting—not completely surprising, but worthy of reflection—is that some of the former worshippers at Holy Trinity are angry that the crosses have been removed and slowly replaced by crescents. Somehow they could understand and even embrace the pragmatic consequences of generational change and a shrinking budget, but the affective charge of place, of this place as a Christian place, was too strong to keep Islamophobic anger at bay.
Do the history, memory, and power of place require bodily expression? And if so, what is a body? Are there bodies outside of place or are bodies only formed in conformation to specific places? What does it mean to be a body present but out of place? Can the bodily nature of place be sensorially formed between and across bodies, instead of felt inside of bodies? In other words, where does analysis take us if we posit that the experiences that mark space as place might be virtual or affective instead of actual and tangible. How does it matter, and what difference does it make if bodies are theorized as personal and collective (persons in and as a crowd or network or rhizome), or personal and singular (an individual, a self, an autologic subject)?
Because religion entails marking persons and places in particular and various ways and for particular and various ends—though of course religion entails many other things, too—all that I have said about place and bodies pertains as well to the place or placing of religion in film.
Consider, for instance, the many actual and tangible places that are compelling to analyze as the places of religion in film, such as the monastery in Xavier Beauvois’s 2011 film, Of Gods and Men, or the torii gate in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s 1998 film, After Life. These structures are Eliadean, built to evoke or attest to hierophanies; they are experienced in ways that are both extraordinarily intimate and personal and yet also bearing on collective or universal experience. Consider how religion is sometimes marked or placed much more obliquely and ambivalently, as through the eerie green computer glow in the first of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 1989 TV series, Dekalog; or the novitiates’ rituals with and around the statue of Christ in Pawel Pawlikowski’s 2013 release, Ida; or through the ocean scene between Juan and Little in Barry Jenkins’s stunning release from last year, Moonlight. Light, ritual relationship, elemental interaction—all these might evoke and play with the places of religion. I think, too, of how Buddhist compassion is constructed and placed through the slowly accreting gazes of the Dalai Lama in Martin Scorsese’s Kundun, or how something like Christian transcendence is placed between the screen and the viewer through the music of John Tavener in Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men and of Beethoven in the Coen brothers’ The Man who Wasn’t there. Cinematography, montage, and soundtrack, then, also can demarcate and incarnate the places of religion in film.
Taking quite a different tack, consider how films can show the sedimentation of religious sensibility and practice in places of social conflict such as Ismaël Ferroukhi’s 2011 Free Men (les homes libres), or Abu-Assad’s 2005 Paradise Now, or Julie Dash’s 1991 Daughter’s of the Dust. The religious histories and practices in these films form palpable affective tensions and construct and constrict the social possibilities of their characters. Sometimes, too, religion is placed and moved by elemental forces, such as the wind in Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, and also (but differently) in John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, or water in many of Terrence Malick’s films, including Tree of Life, To the Wonder, and Knight of Cups. Finally, sometimes the place of religion moves with a single object that doesn’t even seem religious, like the parrot in Kon Ichikawa’s The Burmese Harp, the mask in Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl, or the car in Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and Ten.
In each of these examples, the place of religion in film is also about the religiosity of place, with all the depth of history, experiences of violence, and possibilities for compassion that places, placing and religion(s) inhere.