Atheism by Julian Samuel – Film Review by Steve Fesenmaier
Saying Goodbye to God By Steve Fesenmaier Sept. 25, 2006
Atheism – 2006. 71 minutes by Julian Samuel
The world premiere of this film will take place in Montreal at the Festival of New Cinema and New Media between Oct. 18-28th. Visit their website at – http://www.nouveaucinema.ca/EN/index.php?img=accueil_hover
Congratulations to Julian Samuel, a Canadian with a long career as a filmmaker, novelist, critic, artist and social activist, on producing this studied and sensitive film about the place of religion in our age. Indeed, it is without a doubt the most thought-provoking film that I have seen on the subject
I am familiar with Samuel’s work mainly through two previous films on the subject of libraries in our age. I screened “The Library in Crisis” at The Greenbrier Resort several years ago at the annual fall West Virginia Library Association conference. Last spring I presented his feature film on contemporary libraries, “Save and Burn”, at the spring library conference. I have written published reviews of both films and have provided Mr. Samuel with some information while he produced “Save and Burn”, originally was planned to be a sequel to “The Library in Crisis.” That was before 9/11.
Julian Samuel’s film shows the viewer that at least one person from the Muslim world has the courage to stand up against religious fundamentalists. He dares to present something that shows that all non-believers everywhere share a common ground in their opposition to religious obsession. Few Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu, etc., filmmakers have shown the same level of courage as of late.
I believe that recent books on Spinoza including Betraying Spinoza: The Renegade Jew Who Gave Us Modernity, by Rebecca Goldstein; The Courtier and the Heretic: Leibniz, Spinoza, and the Fate of God in the Modern World by Matthew Stewart and Looking for Spinoza: Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain show that the widespread intolerance of his era is still very much alive now despite the widespread belief that “religion is dead,” at least for non-fanatics.
Samuel uses various artistic techniques to break the boredom of the many talking heads in his film. As we all know, in many documentaries, talking heads can get quite boring, both to listen to and to watch. “Atheism” is non-linear as have been his previous films, but is even more so. The film has no beginning or ending, but is more like a film loop that continues endlessly, like a Mobius strip.
He begins the film with a startling image – painting in black paint ink letters spelling “atheism” over pages of the Bible. Throughout the film the painted bible keeps on reappearing, reminding one of images used by the German painter Anselm Kiefer. Using this image of the Bible symbolistically, he immediately prods the viewer’s attitudes about holy books.
As the film closes, the painted Bible again appears, this time with clay animation characters, some with penises. A plastic gorilla is also shown. (More on that later) The finale shows the clay figures’ being smashed to pieces, allegorizing the forces of control in our world. The representations are powerful and unique. Seldom have I seen such a perfect combination of image and thought in a film. The sheer horror of what religion has done to humanitarianism is evoked by this childish but effective image.
Another artistic technique that he uses is to show satellite images of various sites – The Vatican, the Pentagon, and other locations. I enjoyed these images, often used during American television coverage of wars in Iraq and elsewhere. Samuel frequently uses images that reinforce his exploration of humanity from a distance that will allow more careful observations. I think that he has been influenced by James Joyce who likewise combined experimental writing with restructured plotlines to create “Ulysses” and “Finnegan’sWake.” Samuel wants to create a gestalt, throwing all of the images and sounds on the screen to create feelings of disequilibrium that will, hopefully, open the viewer’s mind.
In between the opening and closing are lots of interviews, lots of talking heads. Many hilarious cutaways show religious art objects and what they would cost in unusual foreign currencies, showing rather than saying that religion is a business, an industry that has economic values. Samuel is a visual artist creating paintings as these cutaways expressively confront religion. Unfortunately, I fear that many viewers will not be familiar with many great experimental films by filmmakers such as Stan Brakhage who likewise composed every frame as an artistic creation.
Samuel frequently uses a moving image of asphalt repair lines on a highway with superimposed strokes of paint and other images. Several times in the film he uses this to convey the idea that we are all on a trip, a voyage, looking for the truth. He uses layers of images of painted calligraphy, illustrating that the world is really just a set of symbols that our society creates for us, to control us.
Another image he uses several times is that of a monkey or gorilla, showing its eyes in closeup, and showing it laying and moving. It is almost like the apes in “2001: A Space Odyssey” – a symbol of humanity’s basic animal nature that needs to be controlled. Several of the interviewees address modern science illustrating mankind no longer has to rely on religion to understand the world. The eyes of the gorilla are very poignant, especially those of the rational-looking ones that will linger in your mind long after the film is over.
”Atheism” begins with Christine Overall, Professor of Philosophy, Queen’s University, who asks “What is all of this about?” Then we see Alison MacLeod, author of “The Wave Theory of Angels,”who presents some new ideas on “quantum entanglement.” She reads a paragraph from her book on her belief that this phenomenon can have implications for our ordinary world. The Wikipedia has an entry on this subject and there are more than 2.5 million webpages that mention it. As a reader of Scientific American, I have been reading about developments in this area and they are intriguing. However, even though she states that there have been some macroscopic examples of this strange link between particles, I believe that the metaphor is weakly developed by Samuel.
Films like “What the Bleep Do We Know?” take ideas from the quantumworld and incorrectly apply them to our macro world. Few artists have ever understood enough science and mathematics to create an artwork that clearly illustrates a cutting-edge scientific theory. The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has lately attempted to bring clear understanding of science to filmmaking with minimal results, e.g.,”Dopamine.”
Samuel’s “Atheism” recalls the personal films by Ross McElwee, best known for “Sherman’s March” and his recent, “Bright Leaves.” Samuelshows images of himself both when he was young and now, showing that he has himself been on this road looking for the truth just as all of the experts he has interviewed. One scene shows him on a crude radio station setup, telling the world that he is an atheist. Another image shows him walking up a pyramid with tourists. He also shows himself commenting on the “terrifying” religious music being played in a church. Many filmmakers, most notably Michael Moore, insert themselves into their documentaries. I know that Samuel is not a fan of Michael Moore (http:// www.counterpunch.org/samuel1126.html), believing like many filmmakers and viewers alike that he uses his films to promote himself as a “celebrity.” Samuel does not want to make the film an autobiograph; but, he also doesn’t want to pretend that he is outside the film, an abstractionist, pretending to be objective.
Christine Overall gives the viewer some background to contemporary atheism. Thankfully, she doesn’t mention Nietzsche, but rather comments on Feurbach who was more important than Nietzsche on other 19th century thinkers including Marx.
Tariq Ali, a well-known Muslim writer in the Western world, appears to be Samuel’s hero. During his many statements in the film, he presents a liberal world of non-theistic thinkers including himself, and presents a Muslim view of religion as a negative force.
Fadi Hammoud, a journalist and Middle East specialist, and Noomane Raboudi, a specialist on Islam, present many interesting facts about the history of Islam and politics. One points out a cruel connection between America and the most rabid form of Islam, Wahaabism in Saudi Arabia. I believe that the speaker is not unique in believing that the ultimate irony in our current situation goes back to U.S. support for the religious fanatics including Ariel Sharon and Osama bin Laden, the latter fighting “atheists” in Afghanistan with US support.
The most powerful speaker in the film is Bishop Spong, the former Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Discussing Christianity with lucidity, he quotes one of his heroes, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, about the need for “religionless Christianity.” The interviews with this man make this film important just for his statements by a truly-believing Christian
Everyone needs to see a thoughtful Christian talk about his deep religious feelings without spouting the dogmas that control our society.
Physicist, Jean-Claude Pecker, too, is thoughtful; he juxtaposes religious ideas with current astrophysics. Much of the world can now be explained by contemporary science, allowing humanity freedom from religion. He also has doubts about the Big Bang which might startle some viewers. If there is any theory in cosmology that seems to be confirmed, it is the Big Bang.
Pecker and all of the interviewees in the film tell us that science is the correct way to see the world. Bishop Spong even says at one point, “I don’t have time to debate Darwin. Darwin is correct, and if you want to argue about him, don’t waste my time.” He also notes that there is no real possibility of debate between religious fundamentalists and modern science.
I hope that millions of people all over the world have a chance to see “Atheism”. However, I am afraid, of course, that only the convinced will show any interest. If the average person in any society receives good, scientific education during their early years, they will definitely tend NOT to become a fundamentalist. Hopefully ”Atheism” will help some people learn about the world of non-fundamentalist Muslims and the broad world of infidels that indeed, may be the majority.
Julian Samuel’s two previous films on libraries are – “The Library in Crisis,”( 2002, 46 mins.) and “Save and Burn”(2005, 80 mins.) both available from Filmakers Library at – http://www.filmakers.com/
His films on orientalism can be found at – Arab Film Distribution – http://www.arabfilm.com/
Tariq Ali, author, The Clash of Fundamentalism
Fadi Hammoud Journalist and Middle East specialist
Alison MacLeod, author The Wave Theory of Angels
Christine Overall Professor of Philosophy, Queen’s University
Jean-Claude Pecker, astrophysicist Collège de France and Académie des Sciences, Paris (retired)
Noomane Raboudi Specialist on Islam
John Shelby Spong former Episcopal Bishop of Newark, NJ