Best of Venice: 'Words with Gods', Finding the Divine Within Our Imperfections

2014-09-07-08_B_SometimesLookUp_300dpi.jpgA still from "Kaboki" by Bahman Ghobadi, in Words with Gods

"I looked in temples, churches & mosques. I found the Divine within my Heart." Rumi

If there is a lesson to be learned from the nine short films that blend to create the magnificent Words with Gods it is that organized religion is not the most direct way to communicate with our higher being. All faiths give us an outline, the same basic principles of "do good onto others and love thy neighbor" and even supply us with the universal idea of karma, but being spiritual is a very personal choice.

Sitting across from the men, and one extraordinary woman, who collaborated to create the masterpiece of possibilities that is Words with Gods, proved without a doubt that cinema is my religion. If I had the power -- and maybe I do, we all do a little -- to change the world, I would make every man woman and child on this earth watch the film.

Just one viewing would bring about such a profound change within the individual, the ripple effect would be felt around the globe. We could finally realize that no matter where our eyes are directed when we pray, how we hold our hands or whether our god is named Brahma, Allah, God or even Nature, He/She is one. Passing down to us the same moral codes and looking on in disappointment as we each claim religion for our individual needs and gains.

I spent a magnificent morning in Venice interviewing some of the filmmakers and producers of Words with Gods, which premiered out of competition at this year's Venice Film Festival -- to a standing ovation that lasted for fifteen minutes after the screening. To me, God was there, first in the theater, then near the water, under the overcast sky and if I ever felt Him close to me, this was the moment. I floated away, hardly touching the ground under my feet when I left their company, knowing that as long as filmmakers like Mira Nair, Amos Gitai, Álex de la Iglesia, Bahman Ghobadi, Warwick Thornton, co-creator Guillermo Arriaga and producer Alex Garcia are around, the world could turn out OK after all. And don't get me started on the haunting song "Why Don't You Show Yourself" by Peter Gabriel, framing the soundtrack of the film.

Missing from this talk are Hector Babenco, Emir Kusturica and Hideo Nakata, who could not be at our meeting but their films filled my heart all the same. And there is always a next time, for more discussions on gods. Inshallah.

I found the film not so much about religion but about being spiritual and having private "words with gods"; because we all can turn to the sky and speak with our individual god, whoever we want him to be.

2014-09-07-GuillermoArriaga_300dpi.jpg Guillermo Arriaga: That's the idea, it's not a film about the structure of religion. Religion comes from "religare" in Latin -- how can I relate to him. Institutions have put so many rules on how you have to relate to God, we wanted what is the human experience of your relation with God. Through the concepts, the rules of the institutions. How do you relate to your own God? I think it's very interesting because everyone of them have an approach that is also very contradictory. The contradiction that Álex de la Iglesia presented, two non-believers who are believing. And the Atheist is the one who says "go in peace." He's got this kind of God face.

Mira Nair: I felt great satisfaction with watching the whole film, it's not a film you expect to see. You think Words with Gods, you think something will be religious and holy, self serving and serious, but it was this fabulous insanity in parts and humor.

You're a self-professed Atheist, but are you spiritual?

Guillermo Arriaga: No.

Alex Garcia: He's very spiritual even though he says no! I always said it from day one, one of the beautiful things, the day we had a meeting in Mexico, and Guillermo said "lets talk about these subjects that nobody wants to talk about." And those are the four subject that we're making movies about.

It's a whole series then?

Guillermo Arriaga: That's right, it's called the "Heartbeats of the World" project. It's Words with Gods (Religion); Encounters (Sex); Polis (Politics) and To the Bloodstream (Substances).

Alex Garcia: Everything that you shouldn't talk about.

Guillermo Arriaga: I was telling Alex, there's a moment when we have to address these subjects without fighting. We have to address them.

Do you ever feel like you have to be a bridge, as a filmmaker you have to create a discourse?

Amos Gitai: As you may know I'm originally just an architect. I never studied even one hour in a school of cinema. All my studies were in architecture, first in Israel then in Berkeley. I think we have to keep dialogue open, we have to insist to speak and to maintain as much as possible friendship across the borderlines. We have to keep the bridges.

Is there hope for this world and will it come through cinema?

Álex de la Iglesia: Cinema is a way to forget. Because when you are making a movie you are creating a world, your own world, with your own rules so everything makes sense. You have a first act, a second act, a third. All the things that happen in your movie make sense and end in a beautiful or horrible way but with a sense. There is logic, there is justice, cinema is fair. And reality is not fair. So when you feel that reality is not a thing you can trust, you can trust movies.

A still from "The Book of Amos" by Amos Gitai, in Words with Gods

Is there hope for your native homeland?

Amos Gitai: In this very heavy situation, it's our mission to extend what is left of liberty, we have to fight for it. It's not a given. It's a grey period and during a grey period it's most important that people of culture speak out. Humanity is built of contradictions. Part of the poison of the Middle East is they're into angelic images. I'm not only talking about the fanatics, but everyone. The Israeli right wing considers they are completely pure, and the other, completely wrong. It's wrong, they are not pure and so for the other way around. We have to install contradictions, complexities, peace is about making agreements in a non-perfect situation. People who want perfection they will go for whatever God or Allah forever. People have to reach out, to talk to each other and be critical.

Do you think that the problem of the world is none of us have a clear cultural identity anymore, so we try to find it in religion?

Guillermo Arriaga: I think identity comes from two places, race and class. When you are unsure of yourself it comes from race and class, in religion you have a protection, a shell, an armor. You armor yourself. That's what happens with fundamentalism, when I feel I'm threatened I create a shield and religion is the perfect shield. And the idea of this film is to open the dialogue about that shield, to make people feel that we have to know each other, because if you know the other people, you will not be threatened.

Alex Garcia: The truth is I've lived all over the world, at one time or another, and I am exactly the other way around in that respect. I think that identity is inside of you. Identity you bring it with you. And if you ask me do I feel Mexican, or do I feel American or do I feel European, I feel fine wherever I am.

A still from "The Confession" by Álex de la Iglesia, in Words with Gods

What are your personal views on religion?

Álex de la Iglesia: I'm a Catholic guy, in the beginning when I was a child, I lived in a Catholic family in Spain -- my father was a teacher in the university, my mother was a painter. We lived in a Catholic world. After that, I studied in a Jesuit university, I studied philosophy not cinema in university. I spent two years studying theology, so I'm very close to the idea of religion, to believe in God. I don't think people believe. I think people want to believe. So I want to believe and I live in an eternal fight between to think with my mind and to think with my heart. Within this fight I think exists some kind of faith.

Bahman Ghobadi: Some people use religion as power. Like what is happening in Iran, in Iraq, in Kurdistan, and other places, who has the power of religion can do anything. Religion is like oil, a huge business in this world. You can make billions of dollars. In the name of religion you can kill people, in the name of religion you can make a country, in the name of religion they fight for huge companies around the world.

2014-09-07-MiraNair_300dpi.jpgMira Nair: I'm not a particularly religious person. But I have great respect for people who believe and for faith in general, because I live with people who have great faith and I see the importance of it. The sanity of my life is I plant tress, in Uganda, where I have my school, Maisha Lab. And I see God in every leaf. If there is a God, a being, I see it deeply in nature. I can't say I see visitations, but there is obviously something at work that makes nature the healer that it is.

Warwick Thornton: I'm surrounded by gods, my mother, my sisters. My mother gave birth to me, she's a creator. My sisters, I was a bad naughty child, and they gave me commandments in a way, taught me how to be a good human being. So I'm surrounded by God.

So God is a woman?

Warwick Thornton: Absolutely. In a literal form. Stop looking up and waiting for something to appear and look for signs, when really they are happening around you all the time. In the Indigenous prospective of spirituality Mother Earth is a creator, it nurtures us, it feeds us, it gives us water, we were born from the earth. That's how I felt. Plus I wanted to be the second woman in this group of directors, since there is only Mira [Nair], one woman and all these men. I was going to make a film about God being a woman in a sense. And actually the reality is that we're surrounded by creators.

Can you talk about the set up for your film?

Amos Gitai: Cinema is also about form. We have to try to innovate each other also formally, not just narratively, thematically, politically. The more I do things about the Middle East, the more I like to do sequence shots. Because it means you cannot dissect it. All the news they give you a specific slot and a very "Speedy Gonzales" editing. They pretend that by doing that we will understand everything about the universe. Instead I installed a block of time, unedited, and in it packaged the contradiction without editing. The text is not written by me, but by the Prophet Amos, probably a shepherd on the mountains of Hebron, some 3,000 years ago, And then I decided to divide it between seven protagonists, three women, four men, some in Arabic, some in Hebrew. The choreography of the shot is not easy. It's a tribute to the talent of all these people, the actors, the crew.

Bahman Ghobadi: For me the film is symbolic of Islam. I don't believe any religion and my parents are Sunni, but in our country they are Shia. When they taught me about Shia, and I took the book home, my father asked me "what are you reading?" I told him this is the book and he said it's not true. Cause he was Sunni. They taught me something and the system taught me something else. I was between two crazy ideologies, I got a complex about it. I never wanted to know God from the religion's way. I tried to learn by going on my way. I believe in something that is like God but my idea is that God is the moment. The moment for me is God, maybe I can find it in the flying of the birds or the moment the sun is up, or maybe I can see God in your eyes.

Mira Nair: Ever since I was a little girl, I wondered about this concept of having a "God Room" which is a really common concept, in the Hindu families you have to have a room for God. I wondered if there is a room for God does that mean that God does not exist outside that room? It used to be a childhood questions. So when I got asked to do this, I love making short films and I love making films especially in the incredibly august company of these filmmakers. My writer Zoya Akthar had witnessed an insane argument within this family we both know, about where to put the God Room. And that started us thinking, because it linked with my own childhood question. And to see it through the eyes of a child for whom really, God is everywhere.

Álex de la Iglesia: I love the idea to change things in a script, and to say lets do the opposite. We have the most evil guy in the world, he's a killer, who wants to escape. He's not a good guy. And suddenly he's involved in a stupid moment and can't say no. And at the end, he's trying to support an old man in an old town, this Gypsy guy in the middle of Spain. He tries to escape but he can't because in the end, it's a trap. And the old man is not a regular man, the old man is God. When the old man begins to talk, you realize hey, he's not a normal guy. The change is good for comedy. In the first act, you think, this is a thriller, in the second act when he goes to the taxi, you say, no it's a comedy. And when the movie ends, you say no no no it's serious, it's a drama.

A still from "True Gods" by Warwick Thornton, in Words with Gods

Did Arriaga give you guidelines for the film, help throughout in developing it?

Warwick Thornton: We fought! I was being stoic and slightly propaganda-ish, like "we are Indigenous people, we have our culture, we are still strong." You should listen to us, we're more important than everyone else. When you first write those scripts there are all these stoic nuances that are not delicate, they're quite brutal. You blame external entities for your problems and all that kind of stuff. Other than just empowering themselves. And Guillermo didn't want that, and I didn't either. It was great, he's a great fighter. He's such a great writer, when he says something, you listen. You also can't just agree, do whatever the hell he says, that would be even worse. You listen, you fight with him and then you agree.

What made you want to be part of this project?

Álex de la Iglesia: I love Guillermo Arriaga, he's a close friend. It's very difficult not to love him. First of all, he's a charming guy. Secondly, he's a tremendous filmmaker. An amazing writer. So suddenly he says "please Alex help me", and you say, "whatever you want!" What you want, I'll do whatever you want. What do you need? Lets make a short, OK. OK. You must say yes. I fall in love with him, I think he's a real good person. It's good to be close to him.

All images courtesy of Words with Gods, used with permission.