A&E's Sacred Rites and Rituals
Ronald L. Grimes
Wilfrid Laurier University
The popular understanding of ritual is shaped less by scholarly debate than by media presentation. The media package rites into saleable, consumable products. Documentaries and other programs aired on television market not only the paraphernalia and performances of rites but also the idea of ritual. Because it attends to the full range of ritual, ritual studies must attend not only to scholarly definitions of ritual but to popular depictions as well, because they help form the attitudes participants carry into the enactment of rites. The trouble is that media renditions of rites (as enacted) and ritual (as thought about) are seldom studied critically even by ritual studies scholars, because they are often preoccupied with physically and socially embodied rites, rather than virtual ritualizing. But media renditions of ritualized activity persist, for example, in Survivor and other so-called “reality” shows. So it is worth attending to the details of a specific example.
Sacred Rites and Rituals, produced by FilmRoos for A&E's Ancient Mysteries series,1 was released in December 1996, and it continues to be aired and re-aired. It helps shape public attitudes toward the rites of others. In 50 or so minutes, the film tries to introduce viewers to ritual, and its tenor and attitude are now echoed by other media presentations of ritual.
As one of the scholarly consultants for the film, I know something about the process that lies behind the production. I kept drafts of the interviewers' questions and my responses to them. I also had the interview independently videotaped by a student so I could later reflect on the final film's editing and construction. Having subsequently worked with two other documentary series on ritual, one of which proposed to take the A&E production as a worthy model, I have arrived at a critical and comparative perspective on Sacred Rites and Rituals.____________________