The cinema as house of worship

The cinema and house of worship might come across as incongruent bedfellows. From its earliest days to the present day, cinemas have either been burned to the ground or, more mercifully, closed down for being places of moral decay. Where there is compromise (thanks to heterosexist logic), female audiences are made to sit apart in the darkened theatre from their male counterpart to circumvent illicit behaviour between sexes.

Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928). The flickering image of a saint is more akin to religious iconography than actors in a theatrical passion play.

The story of early silent cinema has been a lot about the story of gods and prophets. More as a footnote than a celebrated touchstone in the history of cinema is the fact that seventy films with biblical themes were made in the US and Europe before the First World War. One of the first American films was about the last of days of Christ called The Passion Play of Oberammegau (1898). The ‘father of Indian cinema’, D.G. Dadasaheb Phalke was inspired by the life of Christ flickering across the screen:

‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the gods Shri Krishna, Shri Ramachandra, their Gokul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on the screen?’ [1]

The showing of the film The Life and Passion of the Christ (1908, dir. Ferdinand Zecca) in a New York theatre was criticised by a priest in Newark for not being shown in church instead. Commentators of the film suggested soothing organ music and incense to add to the religious atmosphere of the film showing in a theatre [2]. A maker of biblical epics of the silent era, D.W. Griffith was convinced that film could be used as medium of moral instruction.

In my own area of research, texts from the Quran have been represented in cinematic form in Indonesia. The 1980s became a period when certain Indonesian films began to be particularly preachy. One of the first (and only) Indonesian films to adapt Quranic texts was Kisah Anak-anak Adam (The Story of Adam’s children, 1988, dir. Ali Shahab). Kisah Anak-anak Adam is the Islamic version of the story of Adam’s rival sons, Qabil and Habil, who fight over the hand of their sister, Iqlima, with tragic results.

Clipping from Suara Karya Minggu (26 June 1988): Cara Lain Untuk Berdakwah (Another Way To Preach). Here, Qabil kills Habil to attain Iqlima for himself.

The director would lead a prayer before the shooting of the film to bless the crew and film-making process. You could also say that the prayers were also supposed to have added an aura of religiosity to the film-making experience. The film is argued to be an alternative, more popular way of proselytising (or dakwah) to audiences who were more keen to go to the cinema than to the mosque.

Beginning a film shoot with prayer is hardly a rare practice unique to Muslim film-makers. The shooting of Cecil B. De Mille King of Kings (1927) first began with a mass celebrated by the Jesuit priest Father Daniel Lord who went on to write Hollywood’s 1930 Production Code. Even the actor who played Jesus is kept away from the rest of the cast during filming to imbue mystique to his role.

The cinematic visualisation of religious stories made with the very intent of moral didactism goes to the heart of the belief that film can be educational, spiritual, and above all, a source of moral good to be absorbed by ‘the masses’. Film with religious messages routinely begin with excerpts from sacred texts, a sermon, or a statement which alludes that something highly moral and religious is to be learned from watching the film.

Defying all classical theories of secularisation and the retreat of religion to the private sphere, religion in the 20th and 21st centuries, repackaged in a more popular format (some say commodified) have always found its way into public consciousness in brighter, glossier ways. With more films adapted from biblical texts still in the making, it seems as if the tension between cinemas as morally suspect places and religion may never be resolved once and for all.

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Reference
[1] Rachel Dwyer (2006) Filming the Gods: Religion and Indian Cinema, Routledge.
[2] Jeffrey A. Smith (2001) ‘Hollywood theology: The commodification of religion in twentieth-century films’, Religion and American Culture: A Journal of Interpretation, Vol 11 No 2, pp 191-231.

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