INTERFILM Seminar and General Assembly in Uppsala

Achievements in Ecumenical Collaboration - Interreligious Perspectives

Focusing on the topic "Making Visible the Invisible Through Film," the INTERFILM-Seminar in Uppsala (June 9-12, 2016) discussed the religious dimensions and elements of film. The seminar centered on the question how the successful ecumenical collaboration of the film organizations of the Christian churches, INTERFILM and SIGNIS, can be expanded to incorporate perspectives of interreligious dialogue. Currently, the Protestant membership organization, INTERFILM, operating out of Bern (Switzerland) and Frankfurt (Germany), and the Catholic world organization, SIGNIS, jointly appoint sixteen ecumenical juries installed at different international film festivals. In addition to the exclusively Protestant INTERFILM- and the Catholic SIGNIS- juries at a variety of festivals, INTERFILM and SIGNIS also nominate Jewish and Muslim members to serve on some of their juries. At the “Festival Visions du Réel“ in Nyon this has been the case for several years, and this year an interreligious film jury has been set up for the first time in Leipzig. However, partner organizations representing other religions are still missing.

The core question that any interreligious approach to film (or any other art form) raises, beyond any specific religious beliefs and religious assertions, is how religious phenomena can find their way into a film. Susanne Wigorts Yngvesson, Professor of Ethics and Theology at the Stockholm School of Theology, addressed this question in her introductory presentation entitled “The Invisible in the Picture.“ Contrary to the widespread belief that only the Visible is real, Yngvesson demonstrated a plethora of examples taken from film, painting, literature, and the everyday world, where the Invisible comes into effect. She discerned that in principle the Visible becomes visible only through the Invisible. Without the Invisible, the Visible would disappear within a sphere of pure light, within an array of visibility without distinctions.

The Invisible is always already present in images and films as a prerequisite of the Visible. On the basis of this phenomenological foundation, the transcendent, “invisible“ elements of faith and the religious world can find their representation. Following this perspective, the “transcendental style“ that Paul Schrader analyzed in the works of such singular artistic film directors as Yasujiro Ozu and Robert Bresson is only the logical outcome of a potential that can be realized in film time and again. Even such a basic element of film language as the gaze in its manifold forms (including the gaze of the viewer) is genuinely invisible. The gaze can therefore become the substance of religious expression.

With the screening of the film “Words With Gods,“ the seminar then approached the topic of interreligious dialogue. The film itself is an outstanding example of interreligious dialogue. Nine renowned film directors worked on this omnibus film, each contributing a segment that explores a theme related to their religious origin. The topics range from the spirituality of the Australian aborigines, Syncretic Cults in South America, Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, Indian religions, Judaism, orthodox Christianity and Catholicism, Islam, up to modern atheism.

The film directors who contributed to this film include Mira Nair, Amos Gitai, Emir Kusturica, Bahman Ghobadi, and Guillermo Arriaga from Mexico, among others. The latter also launched the entire film project, which premiered at the 2014 Venice International Film Festival. The INTERFILM jury at the festival gave special mention to “Words With Gods.“ Unfortunately, however, it could not award it its jury prize, which is dedicated to films fostering interreligious dialogue, because the film ran outside the official competition.

The range of religious phenomena addressed in “Words With Gods“ exceeds by far the typical narrowing of interreligious dialogue to the monotheist religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. This provides us with an important premise that an interreligious film jury must consider. The screening of “Words With Gods“ at the seminar in Uppsala was followed by a lively panel discussion in which the panelists and the audience argued about the aesthetic quality of individual episodes and their meaningfulness; participants also offered subtle interpretations of individual film episodes and voiced with conviction their endorsement of the project as a whole.

The seminar resumed the following day with a review of the practice of ecumenical film juries over the past twenty years. Johannes Feisthauer, a Lutheran pastor from northern Germany, examined how the juries explained their decisions concerning the films to which they awarded the prizes in the official press statements. He found in them a significant accumulation of the key concepts of Christian religion: faith, love, hope – the familiar triad from Chapter Thirteen of the First Letter to the Corinthians. This led the seminar participants to wonder whether these key concepts could also be a suitable basis of an interreligious dialogue beyond Christian ecumenism. This point was pursued further in a variety of workshops that explored the relationship between film and interreligious dialogue, the reach of film discussions, and the criteria for the decisions of interreligious film juries. The discussions generated many ideas about the future work of INTERFILM.

The seminar in Uppsala concluded with the INTERFILM general assembly, which is scheduled triennially and includes elections for the presidium and the board. Julia Helmke, a Lutheran pastor based in Hannover, who currently serves as assistant to the president of the Federal Republic, was reelected as president of INTERFILM. The other board members were also confirmed, with Hans Hodel as jury coordinator and Karsten Visarius as executive director. Charlotte Wells from the Protestant Church in Sweden was newly elected into the presidium. She replaces Philip Lee from Canada, who continues as a member on the board of INTERFILM. The meeting concluded with a Lutheran service in the dome of Uppsala.

Translation: James Slawney