Vice called Professor William Baker’s new documentary, Sacred, “a feast for the eyes.”
Early in Thomas Lennon’s new documentary, Sacred—which explores the intimacies of daily religious practice all over the world—there’s a young Muslim girl watching her father in prayer. She attempts to mimic his movements as he folds his hands, touches his mouth, bends forward, places his head on the mat in front of him—but his motions are not natural to her, nor do they signify more than just a strange routine she knows she’s meant to learn. Because of this, she performs the actions clumsily, laughing. An older woman comes behind the girl and, as an instruction, forces her hands together against her chest.
“I wanted that scene to work in such a way that two people could be sitting next to each other in a movie theater and could walk away with completely different feelings,” Lennon—who won a 2006 Academy Award for his short documentary The Blood of the Yingzhou District—told me over tea in his Chelsea brownstone. “One could think: This is an extraordinary transmission of culture from one generation to the next and, wow, how beautiful; another person could think: This is coercive. The motion is crude. There’s nothing subtle or invitational about it. It’s pushing the body into accord with religious tradition.”
William Baker, Ph.D., is the journalist-in-residence at Fordham and the Claudio Aquaviva Chair at GSE. He also directs the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy, and Education.
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