Washington, February, 15th, 2017 (Frank Frost). Sacred is a visual feast, offering rich food for thought about the universal human experience of – and multiple expressions of – that spiritual impulse we associate with “the sacred.” Shot in more than 25 countries by 40 different independent filmmakers and woven into one coherent vision by Academy Award winning director Thomas Lennon, Sacred takes us through the cycle of life and death seen through the eyes of religious people of many beliefs and a wide diversity of cultures. The story unfolds with no narration and but few words in the voice of the film’s subjects.

The film opens with a burning candle, a universal symbol of spiritual energy and light penetrating the darkness, before revealing in lantern light a monk in eastern robes walking a rugged mountainous path, pausing in the darkness to rub together the beads he carries in his hands. The sound of the beads in the darkness presages the importance audio will also play in the film. “Step by step,” the monk’s voice tells us, “I have been making a long journey, many thousand steps.” An interviewer says to him that he will have walked 40,000 miles, the distance around the earth, and asks, “Is there anything new you’ve come to understand, or see?” The monk responds, “I am still in the process of completing my journey.”

Having disclosed that the viewer is embarking also on a pilgrimage, the film sweeps us on to a modern hospital in Poland and to a series of brief glimpses of childbirth and early childhood, first in Netherlands, then to St. Petersburg, on to Cairo, where we hear the Muslim call to Prayer, establishing the religious dimension often associated with universal human experience. This is manifest in a Jewish bris ceremony in New York City, another in Paris, and a baptism in Ethiopia. Followed by a young girl learning to pray in an Amsterdam mosque, and the ceremonial induction of a young boy into the life of monk-in-training.

The scenes are characterized by exquisite cinematography with vibrant light and shadow, striking use of color, and intimate portraits of the people involved. It takes us into the very experience of the moment. The meaning of the film is left for the viewer to discover in the juxtapositions of a wide variety of cultural expressions around life transitions and celebrations that take on different shapes and sounds in different populations, but which are undeniably common to all humanity. And which can be seen in every example to be a sacred moment.

Through montage-like sequences, interspersed with longer moments of documentary with characters whose commentary is heard voice-over, Sacred takes us on a journey through life: Childhood, Adolescence, Marriage, Adult life in its many varieties, religious processions, rituals, celebrations, and finding religious meaning in unlikely places like Angola Prison in Louisiana, USA. The visuals of the Hajj pilgrimage in Mecca are mesmerizing. The story of a young man burying a family victim of Ebola in Africa is difficult to watch. A Christian re-enactment of the Way of the Cross and crucifixion, to the point of actually nailing the stand-in Christ to the Cross, is horrifying. (We are assured that Church authorities discourage that tradition.) In the final section of the film the rituals and personal stories deal with death, grief, forgiveness, and meaning.

On one hand this 90-minute film seems long, since its dramatic arc is simply the cycle of life. On the other hand, it is understandable that the filmmakers couldn’t decide what to leave out. The variety of peoples, places, customs, exotic visuals is never ending. I imagine many other excellent stories ended up on the editing room floor. It is perhaps a weakness also that the filmmakers were drawn mostly to the unusual and the exotic in religious expression. But there’s no doubt that those very qualities capture and hold our imaginations.

The film ends as it began, with a Japanese monk completing his pilgrimage, and a newborn baby being weighed. We are left with an abiding sense of the interconnectedness of all humans, and an appreciation of the multitude of different expressions to be found when attempting to capture life’s meaning in sacred moments.
Sacred serves as an invitation to viewers to meditate on what memorable images or moments can help us broaden or rediscover our personal understanding of what we believe on earth is sacred.

SACRED (2016, 86 min) is a production of WLIW LLC in association with WNET (New York) and Japan's WOWOW. Director/Producer is Thomas Lennon. Co-producer is Jessica Wolfson. Executive Producers are Julie Anderson and William F. Baker. Executive-in-Charge is Stephen Segaller. Supervising Editor is Maeve O’Boyle. Editors are Nick August-Perna and Maeve O’Boyle. Music is by Edward Bilous.

Sacred is currently being screened in film festivals around the globe. A 60-minute version will air on PBS in the United States and the BBC in the United Kingdom later this year.

Sacred is the brain child of William F. Baker, President Emeritus of WNET/Thirteen, the PBS flagship station in New York, and former President of Westinghouse Broadcasting. He was the producer of Faces of Jesus, an Emmy-winning feature film that traces the image of Jesus Christ in art around the world and across two millennia.

Baker is the recipient of seven Emmy Awards and is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He has been inducted into the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (NATAS) Management Hall of Fame.