This article first appeared on Shambhala SunSpace, website of Shambhala Sun magazine, in May 2009.
What do the American civil rights movement, an exiled monk's return visit to Vietnam, and a community of people trying to save an urban farm in L.A. have in common? According to Canadian documentary film-maker Velcrow Ripper, they are all examples of what he calls spiritual activism, and they are just a few of the inspiring stories featured in his latest film, Fierce Light. (See trailer here.)
"Spiritual activism," Ripper explains in a recent phone interview from his Toronto home, "comes from the heart. It's beyond polarity. It's coming from a place of compassion, of hope. It's based on what we are for, rather than what we are against. It's what Ghandi called soul force, and what Martin Luther King called love in action."
He says, "I wanted to find that hope in the world, to interview the people that were doing that work — activism with a spiritual basis, a sense of interconnectedness."
Fierce Light includes interviews with former civil rights movement leader John Lewis, exiled Vietnamese Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hahn, Dalit lawyer/activist Leela Kumari, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, eco-philosopher and Buddhism scholar Joanna Macy, and actor/eco-activist Daryl Hannah, among others.
The film also documents several political actions in progress, such as the movement to save the largest urban farm in North America from impending demolition, the yearly protest at the controversial U.S. military training institution once known as the School of the Americas, and the efforts of a group of two thousand Hyderabad Dalits to resist violence and oppression, as well as Thich Nhat Hahn's second return visit to Vietnam after 40 years of exile.
I first heard about Fierce Light during the Vancouver International Film Festival in October, and decided to attend the world premiere. The film went on to garner the National Film Board's Most Popular Canadian Documentary Award and a Special Mention for the Nonfiction Feature Film Award at the festival, and has now been screened at several international film festivals. It will be released to theatres in May.
Ripper feels that in making the film he was tapping into a zeitgeist. In fact, he says that spiritual activism has been called the largest political movement in history. During his research for the film, he interviewed Paul Hawkins, author of Blessed Unrest, a book that examines hope within the worldwide movement for social and environmental change. Hawkins calls spiritual activism "the movement of movements" and describes it as "humanity's immune response to a world in crisis." He has compiled a list of organizations engaged in some form of spiritual activism, and his total is now well over a million.
Ripper is no newcomer to documentary film-making or to world travel. He has directed or done sound work for 28 other films, and made his first documentary, Iran: the Crisis, in 1979 at the age of 16. His recent films are characterized by a narrative style and by his deeply personal approach — engaging with a question that concerns him, and seeking the answer.
Beginning in the late 90s, he spent five years traveling the globe, searching for stories of hope in places that had been devastated by political or ecological crises — Cambodia, Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Bhopal, India, to name a few. His travels were spurred by his own sense of fear and unease about the state of the world at that point in time. The film that emerged from these stories, Scared Sacred, won nine major awards, including the 2005 Genie award for Best Documentary. The journey renewed Ripper's sense of belief in the positive potential of the human spirit.
His optimism faltered, however, in 2006, when his good friend, fellow media activist and documentarian Brad Will was shot to death while filming a protest in Oaxaca, Mexico. The tragedy caused Ripper to question the effectiveness of peaceful protest and whether or not spirituality has a role to play in a world in crisis. This questioning led him to wonder about merging activism with spirituality, and to look for examples of people who were doing it. And so began the filming of Fierce Light.
"The term fierce light'," he explains, "plays with the collision between seeming opposites. The same was true for Scared Sacred. The making of each film was in fact a search to find out what the title really meant. The title is like a Zen koan that I slowly unpack. Where is the sacred, within the scared? Where is the fierceness, within the light?"
Ripper used to describe himself as a Sufi-Buddhist-Bahai-punk-rocker, but says he'll never belong to one particular tradition. However, his most consistent teacher is Zen Buddhist Roshi Enkyo O'Hara, based in New York city, and he says his life is deeply informed by Buddhism.
I ask him if Buddhist principles such as non-harm and compassion are common characteristics of the movements profiled in Fierce Light. While he describes the film as "inter-spiritual" in scope, he acknowledges that compassion and non-violence are clearly at the heart of the political actions in the film.
"The American civil rights movement is a profound example of this — standing up with love in your heart, and protesting violence with non-violence. The powers that be didn't know how to deal with this. The idea of responding to love and non-violence with violence was very unsettling.
"Another central concept," he says, "is the idea of interconnection — interbeing –which is similar to the Ubuntu theology that Desmond Tutu speaks about."
Tutu, a Nobel Laureate and a former leader in South Africa's struggle against Apartheid, says that Ubuntu means that one person's humanness is intertwined with another person's humanness. "What dehumanizes you," he explains in the film, "inexorably dehumanizes me. And what elevates you, elevates me."
Ripper also traveled with Thich Nhat Hahn and members of his sangha on their second return-trip to Vietnam. Their intent was to conduct a series of ceremonies to heal the wounds of war and to offer teachings and retreats. I'm curious about the effect this experience had on Ripper.
"Thich Nhat Hahn is such an embodiment of fierce light," he says. "He is the most peaceful and gentle man you'll ever meet. And yet he is fierce — he has a sword that will cut through ignorance and illusion, and that's what he's here to do. His style of Buddhism is completely connected to humanity and the earth; it's not about transcendence. He's the person who really coined the term engaged Buddhism.'"
Ripper also notes that this experience influenced his style of filming. He says that, for him, cinematography always involves being in the moment, trying to connect to the beauty that's around him, and trying to pass that on to others through the film itself. But when he was filming the monks and nuns, he says, he was especially aware of being focused on the present and on walking mindfully, for example, rather than rushing from shot to shot.
"There's actually a quality of documentary film-making that requires stepping into the present," he says, "and letting go of preconceptions — allowing images to unfold, without clinging or grasping. It's very much like a Buddhist approach."
When I saw Fierce Light, I was particularly struck by a motif that recurs throughout the film: a person with their eyes closed, as if in meditation, opens their eyes and smiles widely. When I ask Ripper about the intention behind this, he explains, "All over the world, almost everywhere I went, I asked people — strangers — to close their eyes, and when they opened them to look straight at the camera and imagine that they were looking at the most beautiful thing they could ever imagine. These people, in the film, they're looking out at the audience with this love in their eyes." His intention, he says, was for the audience to feel they were being looked upon with love.
"But this action, of the eyes opening, can be interpreted differently by each person who sees the film," he admits. He says it could be interpreted as a call to action — to get up off the meditation cushion and put your beliefs into practice. It could also be felt as the opposite — to take some time out from your activism and sit down on the cushion.
"We need that deep inner knowing," he explains. "We need that meditative centre. That's what gives us the strength and the soul to deal with the world in crisis. But we also need to be active and get out in the world and make the change."
He says he hopes the film itself can provide an experience of awakening for people. "I hope that it breaks people's hearts open, but in a way that opens us to change, a way that gives us a sense of hope, possibility and inspiration, as well as a sense of urgency."
Ripper's current favourite quote is "Hope and sincerity are the new punk." That's from Antony Haggard, lead singer of New York City band Antony and the Johnsons.
"It's not so uncool anymore to be sincere and hopeful," says Ripper. "The days of post-modern irony – the snark effect of the 90s – that's withering."
He adds, "This is going to be more than a movement. I think it's the leading edge of a global shift in consciousness."
Fierce Light was released to theatres this June and will be available on DVD in September. For more information, see www.fiercelight.org.
Elena Johnson is a journalist and poet based in Vancouver, Canada.