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Faith through a different lens

  • 15 August 2018


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.

'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