Film and Faith 4 Seminar Explores Spirituality in Asian Films

Jan 29th 2010

Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim and Hindu spirituality and traditions, as portrayed in films from various Asian countries, were the focus of the seminar on “Spirituality in Asian Film” conducted by the Communication Foundation for Asia last January 11-13, 2010. A total of 73 teachers, priests, nuns, pastoral workers and film buffs from the Philippines, Malaysia and Singapore participated in the seminar, the fourth in the CFA Film and Faith series.

Leading the CFA seminar again was Fr. Peter Malone, MSC, an international film reviewer and former President of SIGNIS (World Catholic Association for Communication), who has conducted the Film and Faith seminar in Manila at the start of each year since 2007. Fr Malone facilitated the first two days of the workshop, focusing on spirituality and how it is reflected in Asian cinema, while Filipino film reviewers and academics led the workshop on the third day, which was devoted to Filipino films.

Fr. Malone presented an overview of the traditions of filmmaking in Asian countries, with examples of films dramatizing aspects of major Asian religions. He cited the South Korean film by director Kim ki-Duk, entitled Spring. Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, which, he said, “communicates some of the key Buddhist beliefs to non-Buddhists through images and story: meditation and prayer, harmony with nature, reincarnation, passion and detachment, repentance and retribution, redemption and peace.” Indian filmmaker Deepa Mehta’s thought-provoking and sensitive film Water shows the Hindu tradition relating to the oppressive status of widows in society as well as the injustice of the caste system. Cited as an example of a film in the Muslim tradition was the Iranian movie Barefoot in Paradise, directed by Bahram Tavakoli, which portrays the self-sacrifice and holiness of a cleric who decides to minister to patients with an incurable disease. Fr Malone also discussed one Filipino film in the Catholic tradition, Laurice Guillen’s Santa Santita, which he said, shows “a great deal about Philippine piety… as well as God working through unworthy instruments for healing and changing people’s lives.”

Among the Asian films with experiential and implicit spirituality discussed at the seminar were: Zhang Yimou’s The Road Home (China), Yojiro Takita’s Departures and Akira Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood (Japan), Mike de Leon’s Sister Stella L. (Philippines), Satyajit Ray’s Apu Trilogy (India), The Cave of the Yellow Dog by Byambasuren Davaa (Mongolia), Phorpa by Khyentse Norbu (Bhutan), Yasmin Ahmad’s Mukhsin and Sepet (Malaysia) and the Bangladeshi film Ghani.

On the second afternoon, Fr. Malone moderated a lively panel discussion featuring Winifred Loh of the Association of Pauline Cooperators in Singapore, communication professor Wang Lay Kim of the Universiti Sains Malaysia, Teresa Tunay of the CBCP Office of Women-Cinema Board and Ed Cabagnot of the Cultural Center of the Philippines. The panelists discussed censorship, characteristics of Asian films which are spiritual but not overtly religious, women’s role in society and the influence of culture.

The third day of the seminar focused on Spirituality and the Filipino Film, which is also the title of the book launched by CFA at the seminar, containing some of the papers presented that day (See related story ). The book’s editor, Dr. Clodualdo Del Mundo Jr., who is also a CFA consultant, gave an overview of Philippine Cinema. He identified five generations of cinema based on genre and motivation. The first generation is described as a period of learning and adaptation which encompasses the late 1910 up to the 1940s. The second generation, known as the peak of the studio system, gave way to standardized production from studios such as LVN, Premiere and Sampaguita Pictures. The third generation grew around the 1960’s-70s as a period of struggle against commercialism and repression and the birth of new filmmakers like Ishmael Bernal, Lino Brocka and Mike de Leon. The fourth generation was a period of co-existence with commercialism and the struggle against neo-colonialism via global cinemas. The fifth generation up to the present heralded the advent of digital video and the rise of independent filmmaking.

In the following lecture, Fr. Nicasio Cruz, SJ, declared that in a highly secularized and commercialized world, religious films can no longer thrive in the mainstream but there is a new breed of religious film which, like Jesus’ parables, celebrates what it means to be truly human. As examples of contemporary Filipino versions of parables and films with Christian values, he cited Tanging Yaman and Magnifico.

Ed Cabagnot from the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) followed with a fascinating slide show and lecture on religious iconography in the Philippine cinema. He cited as examples Manuel Silos’ Biyaya ng Lupa (1950) and Mike De Leon’s Itim (1976), which are full of religious icons and symbols.

In the afternoon, three Literature professors from De La Salle University analyzed the elements of spirituality in the films of three Filipino directors. Ronald Baytan theorized on the spiritual meaning and allusions in the names and types of characters, the symbolic imagery, dialogue and plot of Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night. He considered these as part of a search for the divine through film art, concluding that there is no Manila without faith.

Frances Sangil posited the exciting idea of satire as subversion in Mike de Leon’s Kakabakaba Ka Ba? She analyzed the film’s carnivalesque comedy, mockery and irreverent ridicule of institutions of authority such as the government and the church, but pointed out that in the end, the film shows that nothing can be taken seriously.

In Shirley Lua’s presentation entitled “Act of faith and the ironic imagination in films of Brillante Mendoza,” she noted that in his earlier film Tirador (Slingshot), award-winning indie filmmaker Brillante Mendoza exposes sin and sacrament together in an integral ironic image of perverted innocence amidst a picture of communal faith. She commended his latest film Lola, which is about two old women who respond with love, sacrifice and forgiveness to a crime in a society burdened by apathy and callousness.

During the panel discussion, Sr. Consolata Manding, FSP, of the Daughters of St. Paul, commented on the presentations and discussed the manner by which the CBCP Cinema Board set their criteria in evaluating films. This includes artistic approaches, scene selections, casting, and cinematography. Sr. Teresa Dagdag, MM, of Miriam College-Mismo, agreed that Filipino films reflect and reach the Filipino psyche as they can provoke a depth of feeling in our search for the divine and for our identity as Filipinos But she hoped the Philippines can produce more gender-sensitive films and more female directors.

At the end of each day’s seminar session, a free film screening was held at 5:30 in the afternoon. Three films were screened from 11-13 January: Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring, Santa Santita and Water.

Participants responded with appreciation to the opportunity to learn more about cultures and religious traditions through cinema. Maria Celia Valdez of Sta. Cecilia Catholic School Foundation, Inc. commented, “Through the film viewing depicting different religions using symbols and signs, I came to realize that we need to understand a certain religion to be able to accept and respect it.” A teacher from St. Mary’s College of Quezon City was grateful that the seminar gave her a better perspective in analyzing the true worth of a film and how it can be used in school, in teaching faith. Sr. Teresa Dagdag, MM of Miriam College commended the seminar saying, “It provided me with resources and conduit to resources that I can use in our work in spirituality. The group discussions also allowed me to interact with resource persons and participants.”

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