In ‘Sacred,’ a film by Thomas Lennon, 40 filmmakers explore touchstone moments in life around the world. Courtesy Montclair Film Festival.

By Antoinette Martin
For Montclair Local

“Sacred,” a documentary on religious practices and rituals around the world provided Montclair Film Festival goers with an intimate look into spiritual life – and a surprising new take on film-making – at two screenings this week.

The feature-length documentary, which explores global religious rituals at birth, adolescence, marriage, aging and other key life moments. will now begin a weeklong run at the Rubin Museum of Art, 150 W. 17th St., in New York City on Friday, May 5. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Thomas Lennon directs, with original music by Edward Bilous.

A packed house at Montclair State University’s Kasser Theater Monday evening watched rapt as a young boy in Myanmar – his face filling the giant screen – is made up and given false eyelashes for a ritual parade before having his head shaved and donning robes as a new monk. A couple of Japanese newlyweds inscribe their personal wishes for a child on a ceramic penis at a shrine devoted to fertility. The deep lines on the face of an old woman soften as she goes to Mecca in a wheelchair on a pilgrimage of forgiveness.

In ‘Sacred,’ a film by Thomas Lennon, 40 filmmakers explore touchstone moments in life around the world. Courtesy Montclair Film Festival.

How was it possible, Lennon was asked in a Q-and-A after the showing at MSU, that so many intimate moments could actually materialize on film?

Lennon answered that he made a global film “without ever leaving my desk in New York City.” He lined up more than 40 filmmakers in far-flung locations, from Burma to Sierra Leone, the Ukraine to Connecticut, to capture stories about faith and belief.

“This medium is being democratized,” he said. “There are a lot of people out there who shoot beautifully, including in places like Sierra Leone.” The African country is depicted in the film as devastated by poverty and the Ebola virus.
Lennon said he gave the filmmakers specs on visual style, and urged them to interview many candidates before selecting those to follow closely. He directed them to bring themselves to the work: “The filmmaker who shot the boy in Myanmar had himself undergone that same ritual at age 8 or 9.”

The director also collaborated with composer Edward Bilous from the outset, charging him with creating a new music “vocabulary” to serve as the through-line in a film that has no narration, and for some fairly lengthy stretches, no words.
Bilous brought an ensemble of two singers, two percussionists and a violinist to MSU on Monday night. The musicians performed along with digitally recorded background sound to haunting effect. Bilous told the audience that the music for the film was recorded digitally – and that the performers had never actually been in the same room before the appearance at MSU.

An audience member asked why indigenous music was not used. Lennon explained that his notion was to express a global sense of humanity, rather than a local one.

The close-in focus in the filming had the same rationale, said Lennon: “We wanted it to be recognized as human experience at all times, not as the easy spectacle, or touristy.”