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Faith through a different lens

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A modern telling of the Book of Ecclesiastes shot on an iPhone. A visual stream-of-consciousness that riffs and scats around permutations of self-identity. An enigmatic documentary-style narrative in which a young man struggling with faith seeks an encounter with the devil. The successful entrants to the Religious Short Film Prize, hosted by the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture at Charles Sturt University and awarded last week, were nothing if not diverse.

Julianne Nguyen in Grey'There's no limit, and no final definition possible for what you could call a spiritual or religious film,' judge Dr Susan Murphy, who is a writer, freelance radio producer, film director and Zen Roshi, said during the award presentation night in Canberra. 'Religious experience is wildly various, intensely human and personal. Film is one of the most complex media … it leads us into this rich place; the infinite variety of the possible human worlds that film can create and reveal.'

'Intensely human and personal' is something that can be said of all three films that screened during the event. The Giver, by Australian Film, Television and Radio School students Jamey Foxton and Ryan Simpson, opens with the words 'Meaningless. Everything is meaningless,' and follows the experiences of a young man, a skateboarder, confronting the apparent emptiness of his life. It matches sublime black-and-white cinematography to Ecclesiastes' litany of desolation.

To describe The Giver, with its combination of evocative images and voiceover, as an evangelically inclined Terence Malick pastiche is intended as a compliment. The images are beautifully composed and rendered, and sequenced to lend narrative thrust and contemporary resonance to the biblical text. It is stirring and memorable, even if the use of Thomas Tallis' 16th century choral masterpiece 'Spem in Alium' does most of the emotional heavy lifting in the latter half.

For her film Grey (highly commended by the judges), Julianne Nguyen turns a smartphone, webcam and head-mounted go-pro to the purposes of self-examination. A child of Vietnamese parents but born in Australia, she practises both Christianity and Buddhism, and the film finds her trying to parse these various elements into a unified identity. 'I'm Australian. I feel Vietnamese,' she says in voiceover, followed by a chanted mantra: 'West. East. No, West. No, East.'

Though lacking the formal elegance of The Giver, Grey contains an irresistible inventiveness and playfulness: via the go-pro we have a point-of-view shot of a prayer mat coming up to meet us as Julianne bows; images are inverted, sped up or slowed down; there's a motif where Julianne peers through a magnifying glass or other lens, directly into her webcam, as if studying us studying her studying herself. The film is funny, illuminating and deeply touching.

With Perdition (commended by the judges), Berlin-based Australian filmmaker Josiah McGarvie offers a well-crafted and vaguely perplexing insight into a crisis of faith. It is bookended by a conversation between two young men, one of whom is questioning the Christian faith to which he belongs. In between, the film follows him as he partakes in a satanic ritual, having decided that a direct experience of the ultimate supernatural evil — or lack thereof — will confirm or deny his faith.


"These awards clearly account for a diversity of human experience and belief."


The content of the conversations is not theologically robust; the film's concern is with faith at the personal and experiential level. Even so there is an ominousness to them that enhances the more disquieting segment portraying the ritual. Disquieting, because the actions and icons of the ritual are offered without comment or context, and the sequence scored with discordant white noise. The film probes for mystery and is more unsettling for ultimately finding none.

It might be considered a dubious recipient of a 'religious' prize, if 'religious' were taken simply to mean 'devout'. But to their credit these awards clearly account for a diversity of human experience and belief. 'The brief is not to entertain,' said Murphy, but to 'pose strong questions in a register that can range from ecstasy to the darkest regions of the human soul, honouring its need to mourn as much as exalt, and to find poise somewhere in that extraordinary range of human being.'





The Giver (Jamey Foxton and Ryan Simpson)


Grey (Julianne Nguyen)



Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is the editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, Religious Film Festival, Ecclesiastes



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Existing comments

Thank you for this informative and penetrating appreciation of all three films, Tim. However, the judge's comment: "There's no final definition for what you could call a spiritual or religious film", provokes the question 'By what criteria, then, can the work be judged?' "Intensely human and personal" leaves us still in the anthropological and subjective realm. Does not "religion", properly speaking, require some explicit reference to God?

John | 16 August 2018  

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