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Religion, Politics, Freedom, Faith & Making Movies in America

By Calvin Skaggs


A still from Faith and Freedom.

A still from Faith and Freedom.

College-educated American women asked me at the dinner table, “But why would you want to do a film about Muslims?” “You know they’re out to get us.”

A successful American businessman politely asked a Muslim speaker at the Episcopal Church I attend, “So how do you justify 9/11?”

Religious conflict can hardly be escaped in the 21st century, simmering in polite circles in New York City or boiling over in the streets of Cairo, Benghazi, and Islamabad.

At Issue

In the United States, freedom of religion — the freedom to worship as one pleases, or not; to change religions if one chooses; and to publicly identify with one’s religion without negative repercussions professionally or economically — is regarded as a cornerstone of our democratic system. Yet most minority religions cannot claim all three of these benefits, even in progressive democracies.

Now it is Muslims who are struggling to move America one step further toward true freedom of religion. Though 62 percent of Americans say they have never met a Muslim, recent polls show between 39 percent and 49 percent say they do not trust Muslims. Since 66 percent of the U.S. media coverage of Muslims focuses on fundamentalist or militant groups, Americans tend to associate Muslims with violence. As a result, as one Muslim said to me, when people find out you’re a Muslim, they want you to “apologize for something you didn’t do.”

In contrast to the United States, where Christians dominate the culture but are largely required to abide by our laws, some Muslim-dominated countries offer little pretense of freedom of religion. In Egypt, for example, one sees job advertisements headed “Coptic Christians need not apply.” Indeed, the 2011 Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life ranks Egypt in the top five percent of all countries with “both government restrictions and social hostilities involving religion.” Religious minorities around the world, it seems, suffer from mild to severe repression or persecution as they try to live their everyday lives and practice their faiths.

Living in Another’s Skin

A still from Faith and Freedom.

A still from Faith and Freedom.

The film Faith and Freedom – Minority Religious Communities Fight for Equality will show the hurdles such minority religions face and the ways they strive to leap them. To empathize with how practitioners of minority religions often feel, we go inside the lives of several members of two religious congregations – a Sunni Muslim mosque in Paterson, New Jersey, and a Coptic Orthodox Church in El-Matariya, Cairo, Egypt. In those settings, we explore individual lives in depth in light of the premise that being able to live one’s everyday life fully is the foundation of an open society. This means being able to live your life as you define yourself, not as others define you, and being able to assume a life free of unwarranted prying or interference by government or other institutions. But as one of the members from the Paterson mosque explains, “We’re being defined by others; we’re not being allowed to define who we are.”

Faith and Freedom employs verité filmmaking in following selected men and women from these two communities, showing them at their jobs, on the basketball court, cooking and eating meals with their families, worshipping together and praying alone. The characters show us their lives and tell us their stories. This kind of filmmaking can take viewers a step closer toward feeling what it is like to live in another’s skin.

In an era when Americans fear our economy might not recover, fear our political system’s increasing dysfunction, where greed plagues our bankers and pedophilia our priests, it is tempting to roll all our fears into one form: Islamophobia. And in Egypt, the long-denied possibility of genuine freedom pushes Egyptian Copts to be ever more fearful of Muslims, and Muslims of Copts.

Once we begin to experience living in another’s skin, though, we begin to overcome the fears all human beings seem to harbor. Then perhaps a film can be a small bridge over the chasm of religious conflict that divides each of our countries, and the world.

Filming Religion and Politics, and the Cost

Providing such bridges impelled me to begin producing films two decades ago on the porous border between religion and politics in the U.S. The first venture was a 6-hour documentary series on the rise of the American religious right since World War II: With God on Our Side. Since then I’ve produced films on American evangelicals’ interaction with American culture and politics — for PBS, Channel 4 UK, Arté, and various U.S. cable channels. Film production also led me to Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Russia, where religious strife shadowed whatever story I was telling, whether based in Kandahar, Kano, or Chechnya.

I make these films ‘foregrounding’ or ‘backgrounding’ religion to understand how other people’s minds work. I want to get to the heart of how religious differences drive economic and political forces that seem to have little connection with religion. I also make these films because they fulfill me personally. They are based on my belief that a person’s religious needs are at the heart of his or her identity, whether or not one exercises or nourishes those needs. They are grounded in my belief that the three Abrahamic faiths’ commitment to monotheistic worship, the cultivation of human spirituality, and the furtherance of human justice, unite them far more than theological nuances differentiate and divide them.

Making such films is ever harder as the money to produce them grows scarcer. Political polarization today contributes to this difficulty. In the 6-hour series we produced in 1994-96, ¼ of the funding came from left-leaning foundations, ¼ from right-leaning ones, ¼ from a centrist foundation, and ¼ from public television monies. Everyone wanted to learn more about this newly vivid phenomenon called the American religious right. Today, foundations prefer funding films that support their specific ideological bent, not films that try speaking across the barrier of received ideas we all harbor. Today, most public television funding for independent documentaries has disappeared.

Media secularization is another complicating issue. Americans may be the most church-going peoples in North and South America or Western Europe, but our television airwaves don’t show that. Television is almost totally devoid of programming about religion, as distinct from religious channels whose purpose is to preach and proselytize. Each of the major British broadcasters has a commissioning editor in religion. The U.S. has none. The only regular U.S. programming about religion is the weekly half-hour on PBS, Religion and Ethics Newsweekly. Quite simply, we have more television airtime devoted to cats and dogs than to religion.

Yet those few of us American filmmakers who believe that making films about religion is desperately important plunge onward. Our team is determined to keep searching for the funding that will complete production on our current film, Faith and Freedom. And until we can get back behind the camera in Cairo and Paterson, we post news analysis, bits of video, research results, and philosophical musings on our Facebook page. Explore the site and find out how your tax-deductible contribution can help us complete this film.