Words With Gods - Introduction

Impulses for an Interreligious Dialogue

"Words With Gods" is an omnibus film by nine artists initiated by the Mexican film director Guillermo Arriago to inspire interreligious dialogue. It was screened and discussed at the INTERFILM Conference entitled "Making Visible the Invisible Through Film" at Uppsala (Sweden), 9-12 June, 2016. Karsten Visarius, film critic and executive director of INTERFILM, introduced the film. The screening followed a keynote speech given by Susanne Wigorts Yngvesson, theologian and professor at the Stockholm School of Theology, on "Traces of Invisibility in the Picture".

In this introduction I wish, first, to provide you with some information about the film we are going to see, and, second, to record some observation and reflections which I hope will serve as impulses for the panel discussion after the screening.

1. “Words with Gods” is a film composed of nine different stories written and directed by nine different directors with different cultural and religious backgrounds. Each story revolves around a specific religious issue, if the director is a believer or not. The premise of the direction was a serious approach to the subject, and a deep familiarity with the religion in question.

The title, focus, and creators of the nine stories you will find on INTERFILM's webpage of the film linked to this article. Most of the directors are well known worldwide, so I resign from introducing each of them individually. The whole project was invented and organised by the Mexican screenwriter and director Guillermo Arriaga who also directed the last episode about atheism. Arriaga became famous by his screenplays for Amores Perros (2000), 21 Grams (2003), and Babel (2006), among others – films which are characterised by a storytelling from different perspectives. This multiperspectivity is, of course, also the structural pattern of “Words With Gods”.

I saw the film first at its premiere at the Venice Film Festival 2014. In Venice, an INTERFILM jury awards a Prize for Promoting Interreligious Dialogue, and “Words with Gods” would have been a perfect winner for our jury. Sadly, the film was screened out of competition, and thus was excluded from the jury’s choices. In order at least to acknowledge the film’s achievements the jury referred to it at the award ceremony saying: "We wish to highlight the Out of Competition entry Words With Gods which shows the complex diversity of religious beliefs in different cultures and social environments. The power and the strength, the ambivalence and the danger, the consolation and hope of religion are put in 9 different short stories directed by significant directors. This film is even more as a personal statement or a religious information about living faith, it is also a project for working on religious dialogue and tolerance." By screening the film in our conference today we somehow honour the intentions of this statement.

Involved in the project were also two artists who are occupied with other arts than film. One of them is the Peruvian writer Mario Vargas Llosa who curated the order in which the nine episodes follow each other. He decided for a chronological order from the oldest forms of religion which we call nature religions to the most modern and latest: atheism. I will comment on this last story and its “religious” qualities later. It might be worth noticing that Catholicism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam also come late, as relatively modern forms of religion.

The other artist to be mentioned is the singer and songwriter Peter Gabriel who wrote and composed the song which concludes the film. It is heard with the end credits which last for several minutes. With Peter Gabriel’s song I already arrive at the second part of my introduction, observations and reflections.

  • 2. Observations and Reflections

I begin by citing the last lines of the song.

“Hard to find you, harder to see
A moving target, never where you're said to be
In you I find me
Why don't you show yourself?

And we go hunting, hunting for you
And we're all hunting, hunting around this world
And in this wounded place
Why don't you show your face?”

“Why don’t you show yourself” is the refrain of the song and apparently the last word of the film. It is addressed to a God, or maybe Gods, who deny to be seen, a hidden or invisible God. In brackets I like to mention that a retrospective of films related to faith and religion in the Museum of Modern Art in New York (Dec 2003 – Feb 2004) had exactly the same title: The Hidden God. So taking up Susanne Wygorts-Yngvessen’s keynote speech my first remarks concern the invisible.

In the films of “Words with Gods” God is not invisible in general. We see for instance Ganesha in a number of very funny Ganesha masks – I could also say in a number of transformations – in Mira Nair’s film about a wealthy Indian family who discusses about where God’s room should be in their new flat at the top of a skyscraper in Mumbai. I should better say that Ganesha is visible only for one family member, a child – and thus for us, the audience. Being ignored by the others, the adults, Ganesha decides to leave the scene and to disappear, in the end also from the eyes of the child. It is easy to understand that quarrel and fight have chased him away – a fight about where is the right place for God, or maybe even about which God is the right one.

Another kind of visibility we will observe in the last episode which is concerned with atheism, as I already said. In this film we learn that God, tired and deeply sad about mankind, has decided to kill himself. This is not the type of atheism by Anselm Feuerbach who said that we create gods but the Nietzschean type saying that although we have not created, and cannot create, God we are still able to kill him. And already did, with unknown consequences. In Arriaga’s film, the consequence of God’s death is a global blood rain covering everything with its red colour which, after a while, is washed away. This extraordinary event leaves nothing untouched. It’s a visible testimony which brings about a global change – a change however which remains unnoticed. Maybe we will discuss later the meaning of that change.

A last remark concerning invisibility refers to the title of the film: “Words with Gods”, namely to the “words” part. We regard words, when they are written, as visible, and if they are spoken, at least as perceivable. For me who has studied linguistics this is a deeply rooted misconception. What we perceive are graphic signs and sounds but not words. Words exist only by an act of understanding based on the imaginary world of meaning. For I have to be short I will leave this mysterious operation uncommented. I only wish to hint at the relationship between our ability to use words and the ability – or inability – to perceive God, or Gods, a relationship I find expressed in the film’s title. Incidentally at least one episode of the film, the one by Emir Kusturica about Orthodox Christianity called “Our Life”, refers to the emergence of meaning by varying a classical story on meaninglessness.

Another issue I wish to address is the Plural. The imperative of Christian faith to obey and to accept only one God is challenged today by another imperative, namely by tolerance. All monotheistic religions have inherited a good deal of intolerance. For Christians for instance, at least in the past, another faith was not faith at all but superstition. Even today all church documents about interreligious dialogue insist on the premises of a strong Christian identity.

“Words with Gods” does not need such premises, and it is interesting to ask why. Is it because it was conceived by an atheist who has a distance to any religion? Or is it because there is no dialogue between the different stories at all but only a juxtaposition next to each other? Obviously the film’s intention aims further. By paying respect to the different religions it demands tolerance among them at the same time. If we accept this premise, we can at least set up a posit saying that we need a balance between one’s own faith which is always specific and not replaceable, and a perspective of religious tolerance which pays respect to any other faith. I think it is interesting to discuss how this general rule can inform a practice of interreligious dialogue.

As an imagined practice, art, for instance film art, may be a valuable training field for such a process. In its essence it demands to identify with the other, if it is your neighbour or a total stranger. In fact, in watching “Words with Gods”, we can identify with a woman giving birth even as a man, a dying killer who is looking for repentance, or a prophet whose words nobody listens to. They get close to us because their stories provoke our emotions, negative or positive. Thus we can follow them also into their different religious worlds.

Finally I want to ask how faith can inspire a story, and what happens if faith is made the subject of a film. As an example I would like to take Bahman Ghobadi’s story about Islam, for me the funniest episode of the film, a little bit weird and very human. Ghobadi starts with a courageous imaginative invention, creating two brothers, one of them very pious, the other loving life, both bound together by a caprice of nature: they are knitted together at the backs of their heads. Which implies that they constantly quarrel about the right way of practicing their religion. From this premise Ghobadi develops not only the look of the film, using a subjective camera perspective following sometimes one, sometimes the other brother’s point of view. Hence he also invents the incidents happening, the statements and replies, and the turns of the story which ends in a very sad, somehow mystical fairy tale.

The narrative construction transforms the question of religious obedience into the question how to live with each other. It is no longer a question of righteousness but a question of empathy and mutuality. The point of view shifts from impersonal truth, laws and prescriptions to personal relations, situations and experiences. This subjectivity does not deny religion as such. It only pays tribute to the fact that no religion exists without more or less believing subjects. I suspect theologians to be not very happy with this shift because it limits their authority. Perhaps it is necessary to give the authority back to the believers.