Exploring Religion through Text and Film

This essay addresses the relationship between Vlad Naumescu’s CSSH article, “Pedagogies of Prayer: Teaching Orthodoxy in South India,” (CSSH 61-2, 2019)  and a short documentary film that the author produced several years ago as part of the same research project. It reflects on the relationship between film and text and on the possibilities that the combination of the two media afford:

My documentary film, Bread of Life: The Word, emerged from a collaborative research project on prayer in Eastern Christianity that investigates how Orthodox Christians across the world experience their faith. As an anthropologist of religion who had previously worked in post-socialist Europe, I decided to broaden my inquiry for this comparative project by starting a new fieldwork project on Syrian Christians in South India. I was intrigued by the historicity of their faith and by their colonial experience which contrasted that of the Orthodox Christians I had studied earlier. Syrian Christians in Kerala belong to the family of Oriental Orthodox churches, they are not as closely connected to territory and nation-states as their European counterparts, and their rites merge Syrian and Indian traditions in a unique manner. They consider themselves Orthodox through their historical connections with the Syriac churches in the Middle East and their ancient Christian roots, allegedly going back to St. Thomas the Apostle. I chose to focus on individual case studies of prayer rather than attempt a comprehensive study of this Christian community (which itself is split into several churches sharing the same heritage). My choice was based on the broader thematic of our collaborative project as much as on my own interest in questions of learning and pedagogy that I had explored in previous work on Eastern Christians in Ukraine and Romania.

This combination of film and text was inspired by previous work I had completed in collaboration with filmmaker Klára Trencsényi on Russian Old Believers in the Romanian Danube Delta. Our first documentary, Birds’ Way (2012), filmed over the period of three years, is an intimate portrait of a vulnerable community whose historical memory gave meaning to their present and hope for the future.

In contrast, the two films set in India are short, character-centered, and illustrative of a particular case study. Bread of Life: The Word (2015, 17 min.) portrays Orthodox Sunday schools, while Bread of Life: The Silence (2015, 18 min.) depicts Christian ashrams. The films contrast a pedagogy of prayer centered on speech and recitation with one based on silence and contemplation. The format of the films adapts to the pedagogy they portray. The Word, which illustrates some of the phenomena I discuss in my CSSH article, Pedagogies of Prayer, focuses on elocution, repetition, and performance. Its fast pace and style developed from the relationship we established with our interlocutors by following their pursuits with our camera.

 

The film is exploratory rather than inquisitive and favors an observational style that accompanies rather than directs, engages rather than asserts. It plunges us into the busy life of thirteen-year-old girl, Aleesha, and moves back and forth between her performances, rehearsals, and speech competitions ranging from the parish level all the way to the state level. The film follows Aleesha as she prepares and performs her speech centered on the “bread of life,” appam in Malayalam, a term whose meaning conflates the Eucharistic bread and the daily “bread” of South India. Aleesha’s story reveals a world filled with liturgies, Sunday school classes, competitions and judges, as well as teachers and parents who project their hopes onto Aleesha and her peers. By portraying the aesthetics, expressivity, and persuasion of the larger community, the film embodies more than an individual story. Rather, it shows the experiences of a generation of young Syrian Christians in contemporary India who manage diverse expectations and difficult schedules, as they attempt to find their own voice among other, much “louder” ones.

My CSSH article, “Pedagogies of Prayer,” begins with Aleesha’s speech about Jesus as the bread of life, repeated and performed several times throughout the film. This creates an immediate connection between the film and the text and places the reader in similar position to follow her steps from competition to competition. Compared to the film, however, the article covers more historical and comparative ground, bringing in the history of missionary education in India, liturgical subjectivities and Orthodox ritualism, curriculum reforms and church renewal to grasp the shifting pedagogies of prayer in the Indian Orthodox community. Yet Aleesha remains our guide throughout the text, too. The film and article thus complement each other, telling the same story with different means and effects. For, as David MacDougall observes (1998: 257), film does not only tell us things differently, but tells us different things. Film brings the immediacy of interactions and emotions to life and opens a space of engagement and interpretation that resists the argumentative logic of the text. The Word is thus more than a mere illustration of the argument I present in my CSSH article (though it can also be used as such); rather, it is a provocation to the linearity and formalism of its argument. In some ways, the documentary continues its exploration of our previous film, Birds’ Way, which ends with a scene of a child play-acting the role of a priest. That scene points to the vulnerability and future of a religious community that is contingent on particular individuals such as the little boy whose role-play may (or may not) turn into reality once he grows up. Similarly, Aleesha’s story is as much about the adults’ expectations for and investment in the future of their faith and community as it is about her own coming of age.

The film can be used for teaching along with the article or independently to talk about religious pedagogies, colonialism, religion and modernity, youth and education in South Asia, language ideologies, global Christianity and local traditions, or to teach concepts such as performance, subjectivity, and religious beliefs.

References

MacDougall, Davi, and Lucien Taylor. 1998. Transcultural Cinema. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Naumescu, Vlad. 2019. “Pedagogies of Prayer: Teaching Orthodoxy in South India.” Comparative Studies in Society and History 61, 2: 389–418.

Birds’ Way. 2012. Directed and produced by Klara Trencsenyi and Vlad Naumescu. https://vimeo.com/40806294

The Silence. 2015. Directed and produced by Klara Trencsenyi and Vlad Naumescu. https://vimeo.com/111766778

The Word. 2015. Directed and produced by Klara Trencsenyi and Vlad Naumescu. https://vimeo.com/111788475