Connecting Through Films

International Conference on Religion and Film in Istanbul 2015, Report by Sofia Sjö

Last year in May I had the privilege to attend the 2015 International Conference on Religion and Film, in Istanbul, Turkey. A special issue of The Journal of Religion and Film with papers presented at the conference is now out and looking over the issue I am again impressed with the scope of the conference, but also brought back to the many conversations and thoughts inspired by this gathering of scholars with an interest in religion and film.

 For me this was a conference that highlighted the importance of looking to film for understanding religion and culture. Though the conference inspired a great deal of reflection on Islam and film – because of the setting of the conference, and films being screened and discussed – the conference organizers had done a great job choosing papers that really covered a wide scope of film traditions, cultural contexts, and religious themes. The articles published in the special issue of The Journal of Religion and Film discuss Islam in western films, but also the development of Muslim characters in films from the Philippines, religion in Bollywood films, Tibetan Buddhism on screen, Jews in Turkish cinema, and values, existential reflection, and God in films from a variety of cultural backgrounds, to mention just some of the topics. Together the papers presented at the conference illustrate many different ways of approaching religion and film, but they also clearly illustrate current trends, areas of conflict and processes of change. In short, religion can fill many functions in films, but to understand films we also need to look to how they relate to their cultural contexts.

Though the papers presented at the conference were at many times thought provoking it was still the discussions, reflections, and encounters during the breaks that I must admit to finding the most interesting. I doubt anyone with a love for film would be surprised to hear that talking about films can really bring people together, spark debates, and different opinions, yes, but also make us realize how much we have in common. The paper I presented at the conference dealt with religion in Nordic crime films. After my presentation I was approached by a student attending the conference. The views some of the students had expressed during a film screening had given the impression that they were quite religious and held some rather strict views on how religious themes should be used in films, views that made me feel that we perhaps did not have that much in common. The student who came up to me, asked me if I knew of a certain Danish film. The film is a favourite of mine and turned out to be a favourite of the student as well and next we were involved in an interesting discussion of our directors of choice and beloved film moments. Regardless of our religious views and ideas about religion in films, we in short also found we had a lot in common.  

For me as an academic with a long interest in religion and film, the conference also provided a great deal of opportunities to discuss how film and religion can be researched and areas where more research is needed. The fact that the conference organizers had set out to choose papers dealing with many different forms of films and religion underlined the rich material for religion and film research, at the same time as it highlighted the rather limited interest of much previous research. Though we need to look to Hollywood productions – since these films often are the ones that reach the biggest audiences – we at the same time need to also realize the rich material provided by other film traditions. These films sometimes fit with the images and constructions of religion provided by American productions, but they can also provide much needed alternative images.

Link: The Journal of Religion and Film - Documents of the Conference