I had my first “out of body” experience when I was probably in 3rd or 4th grade. It was what some might call being slain in the spirit of the lord: I fainted during the annual benediction service in church. Thump! I fell flat out, face down, feet slid under the pew behind me. Even the boys screamed. Mass stopped cold. I woke to a nun waving smelling salts under my nose. Turns out I was actually “slain” by the aroma of frankincense and myrrh wafting from the silver chalice swung by the murmuring priest and the blanket of heat permeating the church, made more intense by my scratchy wool sweater…oh, and the endless kneeling. My “permanent scars” from grade school included the red half-moons on my kneecaps from the incessant kneeling. I was the quintessential Catholic schoolgirl, down to the white socks and worn out plaid uniform.
Back then, I had blind faith in a lot of things: heaven and hell, crucifixions, purgatory. No story was too outrageous or mystical. Loaves and fishes, Mary Magdalene, the lepers…I spent afternoons in algebra class ignoring the nuns and imagining myself suspended in a netherworld between heaven and hell, waiting for my sins to be absolved. That early training taught me the power of images, ideas and stories to move me beyond myself, into the lives of others.
Stories gave me connection and an understanding of others. Stories taught me how to be kind, and good. Stories made me feel less alone.
Then came the 80’s and I learned how people in power can abuse their position, and that absolute power corrupts absolutely. My disillusionment in the face of scandals ripped at the fabric of all I believed in. I left the church, and the faith in those stories behind.
Somewhere in the late 90’s I rediscovered it, but from a very different source. I’m not sure which one was the first. It could have been the classic “Hoop Dreams,” or “Harlan County USA,” or the Lumiere Brothers’ arrival of a train, or even Nanook and his family trudging around the arctic. Something in me was stirred from the moment the screen lit up with images of “real people”. I could once again touch, and be touched by, the stories of others. I was hooked. The wandering of my 20’s and 30’s searching for “something deeper” dissolved – and in its place were movies.
Through great documentaries, I once again felt that connection to the lives of others who were not like me. I once again believed in something beyond me, and found faith in the possibility that empathy could lead to action. Through these great stories I could feel the commonality, the knitting together of all of us as one.
Spend 90 minutes inside the life of a young Afghani activist announcing her voice for the first time on the internet, or with a family grieving the loss of their daughter, the byproduct of sexual assault, or alongside Sharon Jones as she battles pancreatic cancer with all the energy, dignity, and verve of a true dynamo, and I dare you to say you don’t wish for more. In the hands of a great storyteller those 90 minutes can feel like you’ve known the subject all your life.
In a sense, you have. That feeling of “knowing them” is evidence of the filmmaker’s ability to touch those points that resonate within us. I met you, you met me, it’s personal.
Every time I see a great documentary, I find I have to tell someone about it. Not just tell them, but tell them emphatically. It usually begins with “you HAVE to see this film!” Like it’s my crusade, as if I’m speaking from the deepest part of my core. Because I am. I’m pleading with them to share in the transcendent experience of great cinema. Once I’ve come to know someone on that level, I can’t just walk outside and act like nothing is changed. Everything is changed because I’m changed. And that’s a really good thing.
Since the 90’s I’ve forged the path of supporting storytellers, making documentary films, and discovering other folks like myself - fellow audience members, nerdy doc lovers, social activists, CMP members - who believe in the power of story to bring about social change. Those who believe that documentaries can achieve what religious faith at its best strives to do: teach us empathy, connect us to others, and share a common experience. Because in that shared experience, transcendence happens: you and I are inextricably linked as one. And from there, we can make a difference.
As 2016 comes to a close and 2017 looms like a beacon (or an oncoming train), I wish for as much hope, joy, empathy and transcendence as we can handle as the documentary makers, lovers, and supporters we are.
Peace to you and yours.