And the Prize Goes to ... Movies with a Spiritual Dimension

Article excerpt

When religious communities denounce sex and violence in the movies, we usually hear about it in the press - the Baptist boycott of Disney has been well publicized, for example. But praise for good films from the religious community isn't heard as often.

Yet, the fact is, many people of faith love the art form, go to the movies often, and think about what they've seen. Since movies reflect the society from which they come, the issues they raise are often issues ordinary people grapple with at the level of faith.

Indeed, many churches organize discussion groups for interested members, and many church-affiliated publications regularly include film reviews or features on film. Some seminaries even offer courses in film appreciation for budding clergy since these men and women may examine films with their congregations later on. In Europe particularly, religious communities take film seriously, and a number of European film festivals offer an ecumenical prize along with a jury prize for films in competition. (Ecumenism involves efforts to further cooperation among Christian churches.) In North America, the only film festival offering such an ecumenical prize is Montreal's World Film Festival (Festival des Films du Monde). The festival has awarded an ecumenical prize since 1979 to films that have a spiritual dimension as well as humanistic and artistic qualities. These prizes are not meant to be awarded to doctrinaire films. At this year's festival, held from Aug. 22 to Sept. 2, the top prize went to an Iranian film, "The Children of Heaven," by Muslim filmmaker Majid Majidi. The Rev. James Wall, editor of The Christian Century, an ecumenical weekly magazine, is also the president of North American Interfilm, the organization that supplies American Protestant judges to ecumenical juries in Montreal and Europe. Dr. Wall says that the value of ecumenical prizes for film is twofold: "It notifies the film community that people of religious faith are very interested in film as an art form as well as a commercial product. It says that we want to identify and honor films - not that are about religion, but that resonate with the same sensibility that we find in our religious faith." Second, the ecumenical prize speaks to people in the religious communities. "Pay attention to these particular films," says Wall, "because they have values and they resonate with concerns that are ours in religious faith. They are beautifully presented in an artistic fashion and widely available to the public." Ecumenical juries are made up of Protestant and Roman Catholic members - usually half and half. North American Interfilm is a branch of European Interfilm. The Catholic Organization for Cinema (OCIC) supplies the Catholic jurors in Europe (including the Berlin, Leipzig, Manheim-Heidelberg, Cannes, Karlovy Vary, Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Locarno festivals) and Montreal, and the two organizations have worked together since 1974 to reward fine films for their humanitarian values and artistic excellence. Wall points out that both European Interfilm and OCIC are well funded, and many churches have full-time staff working on education about and evaluation of secular movies - making information about contemporary film available to their congregations and other interested parties. …