Here are some quick notes from the recent Place of Religion in Film conference at Syracuse, organized by my friend and colleague Gail Hamner. What caught my attention was the prominence of Jews and Muslims, especially in relation to gender, in the field of religion and film as represented at the conference. None of the films that I heard discussed “faith” or “belief” as a starting point (as per Scorsese’s recent Silence). As conceptualized by Gail, the place of religion is, on the whole, subtle and subliminal. By this I mean that in the conference presentations the place of Jesus and God was one of relative absence. In the “best” films, if the divine or “the spiritual” make an appearance it is always sensed obliquely in the wake of some lived apprehension of the world. While I am not sure if this completely resolves the problem of kitsch in religion-and-film, it certainly can be argued that the place of religion in film is or should be “nothing” if not social and political.
As a sensual and intellectual practice, cinema attends well to the restrictions of lived life and social place, in particular to problems of domination and suffering, and to creative explorations of new possibilities. I’m listing below the panels I attended or wanted to attend. They reflect my narrow interest as a scholar of modern Jewish thought and culture. I have doubts about the pretty new glossy films on Islam, the ones intended for international distribution, in contrast to the black and white Egyptian movies from the 1950s before Nasser came to power, whose distribution were national and regional. (I remember these being on late at night on Israeli TV in the 1980s.) Regarding Jewish film, is it an accident that the best works are coming out of Israel? The prominence of haredi women in Jewish films confirms the point that once one looks past mythic-historic narrative frames, halakhah, because of its keen focus on the body, is the most cinematic aspect of Judaism. In one sense, Jewish “law” is “aesthetic.” The same might be true of sharia in Islam.
One last note would be to call attention what I observed as the very intense concentration of the Jewish Studies conference-goers (American, Canadian, and Israeli) (myself included) to the presentations on Islam in the last panel of the conference. I would like to think it reflects a genuine understanding of the urgency of the situation today facing Jews and Muslims in Israel and in the United States today with Trump in the White House. That others will have seen very different things reflects the variety of the program-organization and the richness of the field of Religion and Film as a whole.
Adele Reinhartz, Religion, Body and Place inFélix et Meira (Quebec, 2014)
Eric Silverman, “Primitivism, Kabbalah, and James Cameron’s Avatar: Mythic Redemption on Planet Pandora”
Yael Shenker, “That made me a woman: On body and gender representations in Israel’s religious-community films-making”
Herba Arafa Abdelfattah, “Egyptian Cinema and Representation of Islam Amidst Caricatures of Modernity”
Sharon Rothschild, “Looking at periodic social prohibitions through films that are re-telling a man-creation story”
Plenary screening of Son of Saul and papers by Sara Horowitz and June Hwang
Christian Petersen, “Intercultural Cinema and American Muslim Filmmaking”
Elliot Bazzano, Wadjdafor “Westerners: Combatting Stereotypes about Islam through a Subversive Saudi Drama”
Megan Goodwin, “I Can Take Your Eyes”: Gender and Surveillance in A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night
Rania Mahmoud, “Professional Interlopers: Religion and Professional Women in Egyptian Cinema Classics”