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Facing forward, looking back: religion and film studies in the last decade.


Joe Kickasola: Introduction

Good morning. My name is Joe Kickasola. I teach at Baylor University and I'm privileged to introduce this panel and share my perspective on it, which may be somewhat different from those that are here in the room. I come at this topic as a filmmaker and film theorist interested in religious faith and experience, not as a theologian interested in film. In my own field, very few people are interested in faith as a point of focus, despite its obvious importance in human life. I'm sure you all could articulate the reasons for this strange omission far better than I, but I puzzled over it most intensely as I was writing a book on the filmmaker Krzysztof Kieslowski. In that process, it became clear that to ignore the faith questions--and, more importantly, the dynamics of questioning and wrestling with faith--would be to completely miss the heart and soul of that filmmaker's work. The importance of the sacred, and the way it suffuses life and cinema became more and more obvious as I worked on subsequent projects. To make a long story short, after 16 years of thinking on this topic, I am here at my first AAR with several of the authors who have guided me along the way.

This session provides an overview of "religion and film" as a young, but important discipline, offering critical commentary on academic works from the recent past, while projecting new and important topics and methods to consider into the future. The panel surveys four important books from the past decade: John Lyden's Film as Religion: Myths, Morals, and Rituals (NYU Press, 2003), S. Brent Plate's Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World (Wallflower/Columbia UP, 2008), Sheila Nayar's The Sacred and the Cinema: Reconfiguring the "Genuinely" Religious Film (Continuum, 2012), and Antonio Sison's World Cinema, Theology, and the Human: Humanity in Deep Focus (Routledge, 2012). All have played important roles in establishing the discipline as it stands today. But there are particular virtues of each of these books, which I'd like you to briefly consider, as a way of introduction to the panel.

John Lyden's Film as Religion helped the discipline out of the small rut it had created for itself. He moved us beyond explicitly religious films and issues of religious representation to religious behavior, broadly defined, and the ways in which cinema matters to people in ways that are strikingly similar to the ways religion matters to the religious. In other words, Lyden helped get religious scholars out of the pews and traditional church buildings into the culture, without watering down what religion is. He helps us see how thoroughly religious films really are in their social functions, but also how thoroughly religious people are in their film viewing (however disguised and "unrecognizable" their religions have become).

Brent Plate succeeded in articulating the relevance of religious categories like worldmaking, myth and ritual to the experience of viewing a film. For me, however, the book's chief virtue was to employ phenomenological, material and corporeal theories of reception, beyond the limiting linguistic-based models of traditional film theory. I'd broached these theories of engagement and embodiment before, but Brent did so uniquely, with religion front and center. Believing that religion informs far more of our films and film viewings than we usually account for, he showed us how we make meaning--and search for ultimate meanings--in unlikely places. Additionally, we don't just "make" them with words and concepts, but through our dynamic interactions with the pushes, pulls, rhythms and riffs of the world around us, as well as the ways we negotiate the boundaries of space and time. Instead of the typical discussions of the "religion and film" film canon (Babette 's Feast, The Ten Commandments, Jesus of Nazareth, etc.) he challenged us to see, and feel, the sacred in films as diverse as Chocolat, Antonia's Line, and Stan Brakhage's experimental mortuary film The Act of Seeing with One's Own Eyes.

Sheila Nayar makes a unique and significant contribution to the religion and film discussion by employing paradigms from media ecology (such as orality and alphabetic literacy). We all know that the forms of communication media shape their content, but we rarely consider enough how forms shape us, altering the way we conceive, receive, and practice religion as well as film viewing. Her award-winning work offers ground on which to do so, and one of its special rewards is a larger appreciation for different contours of the sacred across cultures.

Antonio ("Ton") Sison's book expands this multicultural trajectory, both in use of sources (the Dutch humanist theologian Edward Schillebeeckx) as well as the scope of films and filmmakers he considers (spanning virtually every habitable continent on the earth). He has pushed us to see religion, cinema, and, most importantly, their intersection to be a matter of global significance, helping us to describe, understand and fully realize "the human" and how the Divine dwells in it and through it. I personally appreciate the fact that both Sheila and Ton have come from film-making backgrounds, and so helpfully point us towards an examination of the form of cinema as a modulation of sacred life.

Each panelist will give us a summary of the impetus behind his or her work, some reflection on it, and assess its impact on their subsequent projects.

Our esteemed respondents are well-published scholars in their own right with a variety of specialities, demonstrating the range of impact our esteemed panelists have had. Stefanie Knauss of Humboldt University Berlin has published extensively on the "bodily dimension of religious and filmic experience," sexuality, media and theology. Rachel Wagner, of Ithaca College, is the author of the increasingly relevant Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality. Finally, Jolyon Baraka Thomas has published a unique, focused, topical volume entitled Drawing on Tradition: Manga, Anime, and Religion in Contemporary Japan.

Please welcome our contributors.

John Lyden: Filmgoing as a Religious Activity

I would first like to say how honored I feel to be part of this panel with my fellow authors in the field of Religion and Film; I have followed their work for years, and have greatly appreciated all the contributions that each of them has made to this relatively new field. Each of us has a somewhat different approach to the subject matter, and that is actually one of the things I celebrate the most about this field of Religion and Film; there isn't an orthodoxy that tells us how it has to be done, and we can encourage each other to think outside the box and to go in new directions. I strongly support the work of other scholars of Religion and Film precisely because I want there to be a rich dialogue between the different views, in order that all our understandings of this new area of study can be enriched.

As my book is the oldest of the four, I am in the position to comment on the nature of the study of Religion and Film before any of us wrote our books, and also how the field has changed since then to include the contributions of the other authors represented here. It is hard for me to believe, but Film as Religion celebrates its 10th anniversary of publication this coming spring in 2013, and people are still reading it and talking about it, which cheers me a great deal.

Let me very briefly summarize what led me to write the book. I was trained as a theologian, and wrote my dissertation on Karl Barth and Immanuel Kant, focusing on issues related to epistemology and theological method--nothing directly to do with theology of culture, or popular culture. But when I found myself teaching at a small college in Nebraska in the 1990s, I began to seek ways to connect with students, to convey ideas about religion in a form to which they could relate. This led me to teaching Religion and Science Fiction courses, which included film, and then Religion and Film courses. I had no formal training in film or popular culture studies, but I have been an avid amateur follower and analyzer of film all my life, and I found ways to look at film that connected with religious studies fairly easily. I also have to confess, I did look at films basically as "texts" to analyze, following a literary model to some extent, but I have since repented of the error of my ways as I have learned the limitations of that approach.

Still, at the time, I didn't find very many books that I liked on the subject of studying film with religion in mind. When I heard talks on the subject at conferences, I found that there were many people writing about this who apparently did not know any more than I did about film, and some seemed to know considerably less. Some were interested in imposing a theological (usually Christian) agenda on popular film. In spite of being a Christian theologian, I had no interest in doing this, as it struck me that one cannot truly understand the film if it is chiefly seen as a means of producing grist for one's own theological mill. On the other hand, a number of scholars were importing methodologies from secular film studies, dabbling in semiotics or Marxist analysis--again, not always in ways that seemed to enhance understanding of the film in relation to religion. I was therefore led to question, what do these methods have to do with the study of Religion and Film? What can our set of disciplines in Religious Studies bring to the study of film, or of popular culture generally?

I answered that question with another; why not treat Film as if it were a Religion, and develop that as a method for the study of Religion and Film? Why not apply the insights from interreligious dialogue (something I had studied quite a bit) to the study of culture, in particular popular culture, including film? Using Clifford Geertz's functionalist, anthropological definition of religion as starting point, I looked for the structures in films and the reception of film that are like models of or for reality, myths or morals, and rituals that allow the participant to connect to the world of the film. This takes the film seriously, listens to what it "says," but also looks at how it functions for those who view films. What does it do for them? How does it support or help them develop their values, their worldviews? This can and does incorporate ideological analysis of film, which I never rejected, but it puts it in context--after all, ideological analysis is one way to study religion, but not the only way. Films do express the ideologies of their societies, and their filmmakers, and their audiences who may find meanings in them that were not intended by the filmmakers. (As just one example, anti-war films may become pro-war films when seen by those with a pro-war ideology; films that intend to show the useless sacrifice of war may be interpreted as showing the grandeur and value of that same sacrifice.) We then need to look closely at the "text," the film itself, including the film's form and technical aspects, and its production and distribution, as well as how it is received by viewers; what do they do with it, and how do they make meaning out of it? There will not be one meaning, as there are many films, many genres, many audiences, infinite possible interpretations of a particular film--but that doesn't mean we have nothing to talk about, as we can see what was put in the film and what can be found in the film by different groups. This is just like religion, itself a part of culture, constructed by people to meet their needs and express their worldviews and values.

How well did this work, and what would I change? For one thing, September 11 happened after I wrote the first draft in 2001, and although I did make some revisions as late as summer 2002, at that point I did not see fully enough how deeply ideological American culture was to become after 9/11 and how much a role popular culture was to play in that. Ideologies supporting violent sacrifice and scapegoating were and are alive and well, in movies as well as in other forms of popular culture. I now believe I may have been too optimistic in my book about the prospects for readings of violent films that do not support violence, particularly violence against those who came to be targeted as America's enemies, such as Muslims. As a pacifist who likes action movies, I had always thought there must be many people like myself who would not literally emulate the behavior of the characters in those films, but who find them cathartically useful as a liminal exercise which allows us to question and reflect on values, as well as have some healthy emotional discharge. Unfortunately, I believe I underestimated the ability of Americans to be literalistic about such films in developing their values, and the ability of many to find support for violent ideologies in popular culture.

I also believe that those ideologies are more intentionally developed than I had suspected, whether that intention is conscious or unconscious. I take Girard and other theorists on this subject more seriously than I used to. Again, I would reiterate that I never rejected ideological analysis, but now I have a greater appreciation of it and I am more likely to use it in my own analyses. When I have the chance, I would like to write a book on the depiction of violence and war in film, taking note of how films reflect and shape our views on the justification of war. I would like this text to be one that can be used to teach about just war theory and pacifism, so that students can better understand the arguments against war, and better understand how popular films skew our understandings of the issues of war by creating ideal, mythological and largely ahistorical narratives in which pacifists are cowards, villains are cardboard stereotypes of evil that require extermination, violent heroes are always motivated by righteous reasons and fight purely, and victory is secured largely without the loss of innocent lives--in fact, there is almost never a recognition that innocent people are killed when we strike our enemies, as only "bad guys" get killed by us in the movies.

I also have developed a greater appreciation and understanding of Audience Reception theory and research. This is something that I called for in my book, even while I recognized I had little data as not enough had been gathered. That is still the case, although there is greater recognition of the need for such data, and there have been some efforts to gather it. Technological developments have helped, as now one can find audience responses to films all over the internet, so one does not necessarily need to stand outside a movie theater with a clipboard and some questions to get some ideas of how audiences read films; you can read blog posts on websites like and get quite a bit of insight into how various viewers saw a film. I have also become more aware of Cultural Studies and the Circuit of Culture, which I would define as including the stages of production of the film; the film itself; its distribution, promotion, and marketing; and the reception of the film by audiences. Cultural Studies also points to how audiences make meanings out of artifacts that may be at odds with what the makers intended, thus creating subversive or contrary readings of films within subcommunities. Cultural Studies also calls attention to how social identities are shaped by cultural products as well as how they contribute to the shaping of cultural products; filmmakers make films that they think will sell because people want to see them, and in this way audiences influence what and how films are made, but films in turn influence audience tastes and values. Greater awareness of Popular Culture studies has led me to see that my insights about Film apply to many aspects of Culture, and indeed that we do not need to separate out something called "popular" culture from the rest of "culture." Different groups have different popular culture products through which their identity is shaped, and we don't need to call one of these "popular" and another one not, just because more people bought one of them than another. What is popular in one context may not be so in another. Consider a set of films as diverse as these--Star Wars, Office Space, Harold and Maude, Blue like Jazz, The Big Lebowski, Fight Club, Hedwig and the Angry Itch, The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Pink Flamingos, The Sound of Music, Gone with the Wind--and you will see that they each have their own audiences and fan groups, each finding different meanings in them. It is indeed hard to define what makes a film "popular."

Since writing Film as Religion, my own views have developed then through this greater appreciation of Cultural Studies and the study of Popular Culture, and that is one reason why I am now co-editing with Eric Mazur the Routledge Companion to Religion and Popular Culture, which should be out next year. This is about much more than just film, but through developing this proposal and the articles for the volume, I started to appreciate the diversity of aspects of popular culture, artifacts, media, and practices, including television, radio, film, internet, sports, music, food, shopping, fashion, toys, games, comics, monuments, and tchotchkes (to name just a partial list of the topics covered). I have been led to see the topic of Religion and Film in a much wider context as part of a set of cultural practices through which people make meaning and interact with religious values, concepts, and practices.

I have also seen changes in the field of Religion and Film in the directions it has gone in the last ten years, and the books by my colleagues here are excellent examples of this. Theologians have become less eisegetical, more aware of film technique and less likely to simply impose an ill-informed theological agenda on a film; they are more likely to listen to what the film is saying, even if their primary interest is to engage in a theological dialogue with it. Those who incorporate film theory have expanded a range of approaches as well, mirroring how film studies itself has developed so that it is less likely to simply impose an ideological reading on film without attention to audiences and what they do with films. Again, cultural studies has made us all aware that audiences create their own readings of films, not necessarily imbibing the ideology the filmmakers may have had. Simplistic or absolutist readings are suspect and to be avoided. There has also been considerable progress made in the study of global cinema, so that we are no longer limiting our focus to films made primarily in Hollywood; my fellow panelists here are among the most significant contributors to this study. I applaud the work of all those who have made these advances, and I am happy to have been able to advance the diversity of the field of Religion and Film both through editing the Routledge Companion on the subject, which sought to provide a comprehensive introduction to the nature of the field at this time, as well as in my role as Editor of the Journal of Religion and Film, which publishes a wide range of essays demonstrating diversity in both methodology and content. I have greatly enjoyed seeing this field develop and being able to support the work of other scholars in this study, and I look forward to seeing many more new ideas and approaches developing in the years to come.

S. Brent Plate: The Altar and the Screen

{Adapted from S. Brent Plate, Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-Creation of the World, London/New York: Wallflower Press/Columbia UP, 2009}

All invention and creation consist primarily of a new relationship between known parts.

-Maya Deren (1)

The lights dim, the crowd goes quiet, and viewers begin to leave worries of this world behind, anticipating instead a new and mysterious alternative world that will soon envelop their eyes and ears. The screen lights up with previews of coming attractions, each beginning with that same deep, male voice:

"In a world, where passion is forbidden ..."

"In a world, where you must fight to be free ..."

"In a world, where your best friend is a dog ..."

Films create worlds. They do not passively mimic or directly display what is "out there," but actively reshape elements of the lived world and twist them in new ways that are projected on screen and given over to an audience. The attraction and promise of cinema is the way films offer glimpses into other worlds, even if only for 90 minutes at a time. We watch, hoping to escape the world we live in, to find utopian projections for improving our world, or to heed prophetic warnings for what our world might look like if we don't change our ways and get it right. In the theater we live in one world while viewing another, catching a glimpse of "what if?"

Religions and films each create alternate worlds utilizing the raw, abstract material of space and time, bending them each in new ways and forcing them to fit particular standards and desires. Film does this through camera angles and movements, framing devices, lighting, costuming, acting, editing, and other aspects of production. Religions achieve this through setting apart particular objects and periods of time and deeming them "sacred," through attention to specially charged objects (symbols), through the telling of stories (myths), and by gathering people together to focus on some particular event (ritual). The result of both religion and film is a re-created world: a world of recreation, a world of fantasy, a world of ideology, a world we may long to live in or a world we wish to avoid at all costs. The world presented at the altar and on the screen connects a projected world to the world of the everyday.

In the background of my argument are the world-building and world-maintaining processes of religion brought out in Peter Berger's now-canonic work, The Sacred Canopy (and continued by Nelson Goodman, William Paden, and others). We humans, the sociologist of religion suggests, collectively create ordered worlds around us to provide us with a sense of stability and security, "in the never completed enterprise of building a humanly meaningful world." (2) Reality, like religion and like cinema, is socially constructed, allowing its members to engage with it on deeply felt, personal levels.

Ever important is the grounding of human laws and regulations in cosmic structures. The nomos (the meaningful societal order) must be in synch with the cosmos (the universal, metaphysical order). There is a dialectical, on-going process between the human and divine realms, and it is religion that supplies the link: "Religion implies the farthest reach of man's self-externalization, of his infusion of reality with his own meanings. Religion implies that human order is projected into the totality of being. Put differently, religion is the audacious attempt to conceive of the entire universe as being humanly significant." (3) Likewise, cinema "projects" a particular human order onto a screen, promoting its productions as a link between the "here below" and "up above"--on mountain tops, in the clouds, encircling the earth. At the same time, the screen is literally created to be larger than life. Transcendent of this-worldly concerns, rules, or behaviors the cinema enables a god's eye view of things, even if we have long ago given up the "heaven above/earth below" cosmic separation.

Indeed, Berger himself states that while most of history has seen religion as key to creating such a meaningful totality, in modern times "there have been thoroughly secular attempts at cosmization." (4) Science has most importantly made the attempt, but here I am suggesting that we think about cinema as another audacious attempt. Cinema may be part of the symbol-creating apparatus of culture, yet it can also aspire to more, to world-encompassing visions of the nomos and cosmos.

Meanwhile, in the practice of film viewing, the two worlds begin to collide, leaking ideas and images across the semi-permeable boundaries between world-on-screen and world-on-the-streets. Such world-colliding activity is entertainingly exemplified in Woody Allen's 1985 Purple Rose of Cairo. Here, the fluidity between the worlds is enacted when the actor named Tom Baxter (played by Jeff Daniels) steps down off the screen and enters the "real world" in which Cecilia (Mia Farrow) sits, seeking relief from her otherwise troubled life. In Allen's film, two worlds cross and both characters are altered because of their shared desires that transcend the boundaries of the screen. embed.swf?context=embe d&videoId=244843

Nonetheless, The Purple Rose of Cairo does not let go of the fact that there is a screen in place between Tom and Cecilia. The screen is a border that is crossable, yet there are distinctions between the two sides, for example when Tom enters Cecilia's world and takes her out for a night on the town and tries to pay for dinner with the fake prop money he has in his pocket. They eventually come to realize they live in two worlds and a permanent connection is impossible. Of course, all this takes place on screen, and not in the real world per se.

Woody Allen's film, while delightfully self-referential about the experience of cinema, also tells us much about the experience of religion. Among the myths, rituals, symbols, doctrines, sacred times and places, and ethical components of religions, the faithful are presented with alternate worlds, prescriptions for a better life, and imaginative tools for re-viewing the world as it is, just as the filmed world provides an alternate reality for Mia Farrow's character in The Purple Rose. Religions provide promises, warnings, and compelling narratives for behaving in particular (and often peculiar) ways. In each, there is an initial world lived in, and then a secondary, projected, idealized world. In the midst of this, communities of religious adherents work out their lives betwixt and between the two worlds. Powerful stories in the form of myths keep religious imaginations inspired, while aesthetic performances in the form of rituals keep human bodies moving to a rhythm. Even so, when the story is over, when the chanter has finished, when the feast has been eaten, we return to our everyday world. The two worlds seem to remain in a state of separation, yet there are many avenues for connection between them.

To make the connection between filmmaking and worldmaking stronger, in a kind of verbal montage, I here offer two quotes:

A ritual provides a frame. The marked off time or place alerts a special kind of expectancy, just as the oft-repeated "Once upon a time" creates a mood receptive to fantastic tales. . . . Framing and boxing limit experience, shut in desired themes or shut out intruding ones. (Mary Douglas) (5)

Whatever its shape, the [camera] frame makes the image finite. The film image is bounded, limited. From an implicitly continuous world, the frame selects a slice to show us. . . . Characters enter the image from somewhere and go off to another area--offscreen space. (David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson) (6)

Note, the anthropologist Douglas is not talking about filmmaking, and film theorists Bordwell and Thompson are by no means discussing religion, yet the formal nature of the two operations shares some uncanny similarity.

To get at some of the specifics of this engagement between worlds, we have to be clear that while verbal stories are part of the activities of myths and rituals, myths and rituals have always been multimedia, and multisensory. Myths have seldom in human history been primarily understood as written texts to be read alone by single individuals (as they tend to be in the modern age by both practitioners and scholars), but have functioned more like "screenplays" that are recited aloud and acted out in ritual performance. That myths might be seen as well as heard is not unusual within religions. Navajo sand paintings, Tibetan thangkas, and Japanese gardens are all visual, material modes of mythologizing. We need bodies and sense organs to understand some of these primary elements of religion.

To further this point, I juxtapose two visual examples from the opening shots of two radically different films, George Lucas's Star Wars and David Lynch's Blue Velvet. Both function mythologically, apart from, and beyond, words.

In Star Wars, the establishing shot that follows the verbal beginning provides an introduction to the mythic structures of the film, and indicates why the film is not just another film about boy-meets-girl, and/or good guys vs. bad guys. The shot is set in outer space, with nothing but stars dotting an otherwise black sky--no planets or anything to give us an initial grounding. Immediately thereafter, the title "STAR WARS" appears on screen accompanied by a bang of orchestral music (by John Williams). The audience is jolted, excited, by what is to come. As the triumphant, heavy-percussion music continues, a prologue scrolls up the screen, further setting up verbal details of what has happened and what is to come. Viewers are caught up in the narrative, thrust into the middle of action through these words and music.

But the grander mythical cues come just as the words scroll up the screen and disappear into the ether. At that precise instant, the jubilant, percussion-heavy music also all but disappears, leaving only a solo flute playing alongside chimes. For five seconds there is utter calm: the heavens are in their place, the music plays softly, soothingly; there is a cosmic order to the universe. But all we are allowed is five seconds, for then the camera, which has been stationary until now, tilts down to reveal a blue/orange-hued planet below, with other planets visible in the distance. As the camera tilts downward, violin strings frantically rise up and the percussion crashes just as two space ships are caught in battle, firing laser guns at each other. Chaos erupts into the cosmos, wars emerge in the midst of stars.

By setting up the establishing shot in outer space, by suggesting an ordered calm to a universe and then introducing chaotic elements through sound and image, Lucas triggers many elements common in cosmogonies: In the beginning, chaos and cosmos are in battle. In myths as diverse as the Hebrew, Iroquois, Babylonian, and Greek creation stories, the grand struggle in these myth's "establishing shots," is that of cosmos vs. chaos. And through history, such myths indicate, this battle perpetually remains just below the surface of things as humans (or other volitional, sentient creatures) enter into this struggle, creating their own nomic order. Star Wars, writ large, is about stars and wars, cosmos and chaos, and then about relating the human social order to the cosmic order. In the beginning, visually and mythologically, all the remaining 10+ hours of the six Star Wars films are set up within the few seconds of the establishing shot in the first film. The film announces itself as far more than a space-age story, and instead tells us that these wars are the wars of humankind. Which is to say it is no less ambitious than a myth.

Such visual mythologizing is created in other films as well, and here I turn to the surrealistic visions of David Lynch to explore this further. Here is the opening clip from his 1986 film Blue Velvet. Ld9S0

The opening shots introduce an orderly world created through vertical and horizontal spatial dimensions, primary colors, and the 1950s hit song "Blue Velvet." Shot one begins in the sky, blue with scattered clouds, as the camera tilts down to the vertical array of a white picket fence. Eventually red tulips appear against the white fence with blue sky in the background. The larger themes of the film could have fit anywhere, and yet Lynch makes clear that this is the United States in the 1950s, as the red, white, and blue composition of the first shot is extended by the proverbial white picket fences of U.S. suburbia. The next several shots are edited so as to alternate between horizontal and vertical spatial orientations. Red, white, blue, and yellow colors dominate, while mundane, neighborly images of fire trucks and crosswalks appear. The viewer is eventually brought inside, to a living room where a woman sits sipping coffee while watching daytime television. It is a beautiful day in the neighborhood until we see what the woman is watching: a black-and-white close-up image of a man's hand holding a revolver. This is the first subtle disturbance in the so-far cosmically ordered world--not much, but enough to knock the neat and tidy perspective off kilter. The next images bring us back outside to a man watering his garden (later revealed to be the protagonist's father, Mr. Beaumont), just as strange noises begin to emerge from the water spigot. A kink in the hose halts the water flow and while the man attempts to untangle it, he suffers a stroke. The camera then resumes its downward tilt, this time passing below Mr. Beaumont--who is now lying on the grass with water still spurting out of the now-phallic hose as a dog attempts to drink the water--delving into the earth below. Here the creepy-crawly domain of bugs and insects are revealed to be scampering over each other, all of which is reinforced by an eerie soundtrack, making the viewer feel as if they are truly in that very underworld. The remainder of the film continues with such premonitions.

Through sound and image, Blue Velvet begins with revelations of a world similar to what the Star Wars opening shots reveal: Cosmos above, chaos below. In this way, these two films present worlds both radically new and entirely ancient; in this most modern of visual media we find filmmakers relying on primeval cosmologies where peace and harmony exist above, and chaos subsists below. Yet, rather than leaving us in the mythically distant "long time ago and far, far away," Blue Velvet brings the cosmos down to earth, to our neighborhood, connecting up with the mundane tasks of watering the lawn, going to school, and watching television. And then it unveils the chaos that lies under the very ground on which we walk. The macrocosm is transplanted into the microcosm, the world out there is remade into the here and now.

Films, like the ones discussed here, are a blending of mythologies. Myths are always "mashups" (to borrow some contemporary multi-mediated language), always assembled through bits, pieces, and found objects that have been borrowed, begged, stolen, and improvised. Film has been and continues to be a natural medium for mashups due to its multimedia origins in theater, photography, and focus on everyday life. Meanwhile, attention to the sources of films suggests something about the sources of myths as well. Their existence as a mashup is part and parcel of what all religious myths are about: begging, borrowing and stealing. This is part of what gives them all such great power to affect people's lives. Throughout history myths have been created by borrowing other cultures' myths, setting differing mythologies alongside each other, and then honing the story down into a new package that becomes identified with an emerging community. Rip. Mix. Burn. Christianity takes the mythologies and rituals surrounding the Jewish Passover--Jesus was Jewish, and the "last supper" was a Passover meal--and turns it into the thoroughly Christian activity of Communion. Just as the Jewish Passover is focused on remembrance of liberation in the form of an exodus out of Egyptian slavery, so does the Christian Communion center on remembrance of the body and blood of Christ as the path to liberation.

Religion and film are akin. They both function by recreating the known world and then projecting that alternative version of the world to their viewers/worshippers, making it appear, as Clifford Geertz might say, "uniquely realistic." In this way these audio-visual, experiential stories impact human lives, offering models for living, not just cerebrally, but through the body. The impact, furthermore, is often so great that participants do not see differences in the worlds but rather a seamless whole. Religious worlds are so encompassing that devotees cannot understand their personal worlds any other way; filmic worlds are so influential that personal relationships can only be seen through what has been seen on screen. My working hypothesis has been that by paying attention to the ways films are constructed, we can shed light on the ways religions are constructed, and vice versa. Film production borrows millennia-old aesthetic tactics from religions, but contemporary religious practices are likewise modified by the pervasive influence film has had on modern society.


Berger, Peter, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967)

Bordwell, David and Thompson, Kristin, Film Art: An Introduction, sixth ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001)

Deren, Maya, "Cinematography: The Creative Uses of Reality," in The Avant-Garde Film, P. Adams Sitney, ed. (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1987)

Douglas, Mary, Purity and Danger (New York: Routledge, 2002)

(1) Maya Deren, "Cinematography: The Creative Uses of Reality," in The Avant-Garde Film, P. Adams Sitney, ed. (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1987), 69.

(2) Peter Berger, The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1967), 27.

(3) Berger, Sacred Canopy, 27-28.

(4) Berger, Sacred Canopy, 27.

(5) Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger (New York: Routledge, 2002), 78.

(6) David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction, sixth ed. (New York: McGraw Hill, 2001), 216.

Antonio D. Sison: World Cinema, Theology, and the Human

{Adapted from Antonio D. Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human: Humanity in Deep Focus. London/New York: Routledge, 2012}

   The observant but unobtrusive cinematography reveals a party of
   twelve taking its place at the elegantly set, candle-lit table,
   awaiting the special dinner that is about to be served.
   Mise-en-scene is austere and quiescent, echoing the 19th Century
   Danish puritan milieu the characters live in, not to mention the
   wintry season that marks the gathering. This, and the characters'
   period costuming- predominantly raven-colored and severe-looking
   -veil the lack of resolution in the stories they each carry within
   themselves ... At this table of human disenchantment, an exquisite
   French banquet unfolds to the astonishment of the ascetic guests
   who have sworn to deny "fleshly appetites" of all sorts. But as
   serving after serving of ambrosial dishes and fine wines allow them
   to savor bounteous goodness and sensuous delight, things begin to
   change at the table. Between scrumptious mouthfuls of Caille en
   Sarcophage (literally, "quail in a sarcophagus") and sips of
   perfectly-aged Amontillado, unexpressed love and repressed
   creativity find an alternative spiritual path to fulfillment; and
   reconciliation becomes a promise and a possibility in a community
   redivivus. Surely, this is no ordinary meal. (1)

My encounter with the Danish film Babette's Feast (Gabriel Axel, 1986) more than two decades ago registered in me as a liminal experience; the mysterious conspiracy of image, story, and sound, painted alternative possibilities for me that had not until then been clarified in my field of vision. "Being human is a wonderful thing," I mused, as I reflected on how human finitude becomes the paradoxical fertile ground where new ways of relating with each other, with the world we live in, and yes, with absolute mystery, begin to germinate. In more ways than one, the silver screen in the darkened theater hall shone before me like a light at the end of the tunnel. I had dined at Babette's table.

World Cinema as Locus Theologicus

Babette 's Feast works as an index of my deepening theological engagement with film, and as an imaginative touchstone for discussing the scholarly servings of World Cinema, Theology, and the Human: Humanity in Deep Focus. While my prologue draws from personal experience, my book is decidedly a product of the burgeoning interdisciplinary study of Religion and Film. Estimated to be about thirty years old, (2) the relative youth of this area of inquiry connotes an ongoing process of maturation in the aspect of developing a more systematic interfacing between Religious Studies and Film Studies, specifically, "in terms of a more judicious adoption of a respectful, dialogical approach that examines film on its own terms, and accords due consideration to its proprietary language and grammar." (3) Historically, the scholarly input had often concentrated on thematic and narrative considerations, inadvertently positioning film as a mere adjunct to literature. This continues to cast a shadow on the very credibility of the Religion-Film debate. Melanie Wright incisively argues, "Could it be that--despite the growing bibliography and a plethora of courses--film is not really being studied at all?" (4) Re-casting the question in more specific terms, could a hermeneutical approach that disregards mise-en-scene, cinematography, and music, most especially in films that evoke powerful sensory/affective fusion such as Babette 's Feast, even be considered valid? (5) Each year, committee members of the Religion, Film, and Visual Culture group of the American Academy of Religion (AAR) make a conscious effort to ensure that paper submissions for the annual meeting are cognizant of this lacuna; we look forward to reaching a stage when calls for a more critical film hermeneutics would be superfluous.

My engagement with Babette's Feast also serves to cue the reader into looking at the selection of films that have made their way into my project. The noted Danish film is one of just a handful of non-English titles from world cinema that register on the radar of the Religion-Film interdiscipline each year; the scales have been lopsidedly tipped on the side of Hollywood blockbusters, many of them, theorized many times before- The Ten Commandments (Cecil B. DeMille, 1948), Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977), Dead Poet's Society (Peter Weir, 1989), Field of Dreams (Phil Alden Robinson, 1989), and The Passion of the Christ (Mel Gibson, 2004), to name a few. In view of this imbalance, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human is an earnest effort to widen the aperture through an assemblage of films from diverse filmmaking cultures. I am not so much interested in legalese on what constitutes world cinema- the U.S. Academy Awards has specific rules of eligibility for Best Foreign Language Film nominations (6)--as drawing scholarly attention to the cultural and anthropological richness offered by world cinema. That said, I approach the categorization "world cinema" in an inclusive sense, a choice based more on the "spirit" than the "letter." A case in point, the film Kite Runner (Mark Forster, 2007), an American film that gives privileged visibility to a story set in Taliban-era Afghanistan, finds a niche in my selection. In like manner, though the Singaporean film Be With Me (Erik Khoo, 2002) was disqualified from the Oscar Best Foreign Language Film nominations for having not just one dominant language but four (including English and Braille/sign language), I did not consider the film's interculturality, as codified in its multilingual dialogue, a de-merit. As I pointed out in my book, "films such as these are indexical of a world that is rapidly becoming intercultural, with national and cultural identities negotiated in the interstices of transnational migration and cultural liquidity." (7)

In view of the near unanimous critical acclaim reaped by Babette 's Feast, including the 1987 Best Foreign Language Oscar, the aspect of "critical reception" also figures into my criteria for film selection. The films I've chosen to examine have been recognized in critical reviews, international film festivals, and industry award-giving bodies. Evidently, there is not always a straight line that can be drawn between awards and excellence--it is well known that each year yields its share of overlooked cinematic gems--but they do serve the purpose of highlighting works that had earned validation from the film community. The titles I've chosen have, in some measure, merited the scholarly attention. Additionally, in an effort to encourage readers to view or re-view the films, I've factored into the selection process the titles' commercial availability on DVD, Blu-Ray, or online streaming. To ensure that my case studies would generate fresh insight, I've also limited my choices to fairly recent films produced from 2000 to 2010.

Finally, my referencing of Babette's Feast illustrates the power of film to trigger the hermeneutical impulse in such a way that the portrayal of vivid humanity unfolding on screen lays down a bridge for a conversation with theology. This is evinced in two ways. First, it is the cinematic text, not so much the theological text, which initiates the critical dialogue. In this way, film as art is given prior leave to be locus theologicus, a rich source of theological insight, rather than the traditional trajectory of theology asserting its primacy as normative text upon which other texts are made to be subservient. In discussing theological approaches to the icon/image, Swedish scholar Sigurd Bergmann proposes, "Theology's challenge is to contribute to a more reflected attitude to the autonomy and mystery of pictures and of vision." (8) This would mean that scholars of religious studies and theology must keep in check the tendency to "colonize" and "baptize" films, an approach that imposes Christian/religious perspectives as an external additive, rather than as an organic dialogue partner to film. Resonantly, Craig Detweiler writes about a re-ordering of the hermeneutical moments of Theology and Film:

   While I respect the power and authority of theology, I approach the
   discipline as "film and theology," allowing the films to drive the
   conversation, with theology arising out of the art, rather than
   imposing it within the text. This is the full implication of
   reversing the hermeneutic flow. (9)

As a systematic theologian who is also an independent digital filmmaker and cineaste, my own theological engagement dovetails with that of Detweiler:

   I intentionally bracket my virtual folder of theological
   propositions so that I do not summarily enter the theater as a
   matchmaker scouting for a compatible partner for theology. Rather,
   I assent to the capacity of the film to be the doorkeeper, allowing
   it to open portals for a meaningful dialogue with my theological
   bases. (10)

Second, it is the cinematic imaging of the human story--the portrayal of lives lived fully in the finitude of the meantime--that offers portals to a theological conversation. Theology enters into the dialogue via "the human" rather than the traditional route of propositional, dogmatic statements. I would describe my project as an imaginative quest for eternal treasures in jars of clay. The religious sensibility of filmmaker Robert Bresson echoes this view:

   To begin with, I don't think that speaking of God, pronouncing
   God's name, indicates his presence. If I succeed, through the lens
   of cinematography, in representing a human being, that is, someone
   who has a soul, who is not a marionette who wiggles, if there is a
   human presence, there is a divine presence. It is not because the
   name of God is pronounced that God is more or less present. (11)

Bresson's hermeneutical lens as well as mine, reflects a certain anthropological confidence, "God, who is ineffable holy mystery, is known through the refracted light of the human who is imago dei." (12)

Now Showing: The Human

A deeper focus on the human story invites conversations with theologies that take a distinct anthropological turn; such theologies offer conceptual threads that interweave through the film analysis. A heuristic frame of reference for this interweaving is the human-centered theology of theologian Edward Schillebeeckx. In his later theology, Schillebeeckx configures the ancient Biblical symbol of imago dei--human beings as God's image and likeness--in terms of the humanum, the eschatological vision of the human family on a pilgrimage towards full reconciliation with self, with each other, and with God, who is revealed in human experience. "Indeed, for Schillebeeckx, it is the human that is the royal road to God." (13) The optimism of this theological understanding, however, is put on trial by evil, injustice, and suffering, that have formed a continuing scarlet thread through human history. Where is the humanum in scandalous human tragedies such as the Rwandan genocide? Apartheid in South Africa? The recent Sandy Hook slaughter of the innocents? If anything, humanity is "an ecumene of suffering." (14) In Schillebeeckx's understanding, the humanum is a dialectical reality, a noble goal that has to be struggled for within the crucible of human finitude. Where then is the God of goodness and pure positivity in the face of an ecumene of suffering? The divine presence is located in human praxis, in the refusal to acquiesce to cruel contexts that threaten the humanum. This would include concrete efforts to protest against evil and oppression, and the sociopolitical structures that perpetuate them. Said another way, God is the innervating principle in the resistance against what is "not-God." "Negative contrast experiences" is the terminology Schillebeeeckx uses to emphasize the paradoxical character of the humanum:

   As a contrast experience; it implies indirectly a conscious-ness of
   an appeal of and to the humanum. In this sense, activity which
   overcomes suffering is only possible on the basis of at least an
   implicit or inchoate anticipation of a possible, coming universal
   meaning. (15)

Human suffering becomes the very oil for eschatological hope when it enkindles praxis. "The humanum is thus experienced indirectly and fragmentarily in the triple here-and-now realities of promise, protest, and praxis." (16)

Although not intended to demarcate each of the chapters of this book, Schillebeeckx's decisively anthropological theology serves as an outer concentric ring, a horizon of meaning that consolidates diverse theological threads drawn from the works of other noted theologians who follow a resonant "God-in-the-human" trajectory--Dorothee Solle, Jon Sobrino, Soren Kierkegaard, Michael Amaladoss, Pope Benedict XVI, among others.

I would describe the interfacing of Theology and Film in this book as "creative crossings," (17) an intertextual exploration that is both imaginative and critical. For organizational purposes, I group the chapters of this book under four sections, each meant to be descriptive rather than prescriptive of the particular facet of humanity that is refracted in the Theology-Film dialogue.

Creative Humanity

Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, UK, 2000), Be With Me (Erik Khoo, Singapore, 2005)

Reconciling Humanity

The Son (Jeanne-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Belgium, 2002), Kite Runner (Mike Forster, USA, 2007)

Liberating Humanity

Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (Ashutosh Gowariker, India, 2002), Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, UK, 2008), Motorcycle Diaries (Walter Salles, Argentina, 2004)

Inclusive Humanity

Yesterday (Darrell Roodt, South Africa, 2004), Whale Rider (Nikki Caro, New Zealand, 2002)

Slumdog Divinity

Of course, there is no space in this paper for a thorough discussion of each of the films, but allow me to at least offer a "blood sample." I draw attention to the relatively recent Oscar winner Slumdog Millionaire, a film by British director Danny Boyle, who lensed Trainspotting (1996) and 127 Hours (2010). Jamal Malik, a young man raised in Mumbai's Dharavi slum community, finds that his harrowing experiences as a young boy living in a cruel context will later change the course of his life. He is a participant in the Indian version of the quiz show Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, and memories of a string of misfortunes in his childhood provide the answers to the questions asked of him. The unfolding of a paradoxical movement in the film's dramatic arc already finds iconic representation in an early scene. In flashback, we see Jamal relieving himself in one of the slum's outhouses, which are nothing more than jerry-built stalls standing on stilts in the middle of a swamp. Designed to allow human waste to torpedo directly into the awaiting swamp, a Dharavi-style toilet bowl is a space between wooden planks. Jamal had taken too long in using the toilet and this infuriates his brother Salim, who earns loose change by charging customers an entrance fee. When a helicopter bearing India's biggest film star Amitabh Bachchan (in real life, the erstwhile host of India's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?) is about to land in Dharavi, all hell breaks loose as residents rush to catch a glimpse of the actor. The vengeful Salim bolts the door from outside the toilet so that Jamal, a die-hard fan who carries Bachchan's photo in his pocket, is trapped. The panic-stricken Jamal is now caught between the Scylla of missing the once-in-a-lifetime chance of meeting his idol, and the Charybdis of jumping out into the toilet hole. At that frantic moment, he chooses the latter and plummets into the swamp while holding Bachchan's photo up to save it. Coated in foul gunk, Jamal easily parts the crowd like Moses parting the Dead Sea, and comes face to face with Amitabh Bachchan, who obliges him with an autograph. Triumphant, Jamal raises the photo and shouts, "Amitabh Bachchan gave me his autograph!"

The toilet scene is Boyle's comical but incisive use of mise-en-scene to portray paradox. (18) It is an iconic representation of how the very crud of a slumdog's life will mysteriously form a conspiracy of grace that will ultimately lead him to triumph over life's obstacles. The paradoxical current can be further clarified through the lens of "serendipity." Drawn from Horace Walpole's adaptation of the ancient Persian tale The Three Princes of Serendip, serendipity can be described as "the wisdom of recognizing and then moving with the energetic flow of the unexpected." (19) Serendipity presumes a "divine naivete," (20) a faith-like openness to mystery, trusting that life's unmapped twists and turns, including misfortunes and experiences of suffering, will ultimately serve the good and authentic. The Dharavi slums, locus of the most cruel moments in Jamal's young life, serendipitously offers the keys that will eventually allow him the self-agency to live and to love.

The theological drill down affirms that it is indeed the human that is the royal road to God. In the deep focus of World Cinema, Theology, and the Human, the story of Jamal Malik, Slumdog Millionaire's prince of serendipity, becomes a locus theologicus. A "slumdog divinity," if you will.


Bergmann, Sigurd, In the Beginning is the Icon: A Liberative Theology of Images, Visual Arts and Culture, trans. Anja K. Angelsen. (London: Equinox Publishing, 2009)

Cunneen, Joseph, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film. (New York: Continuum International, 2006)

Detweiler, Craig, Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008)

Fraser, Peter, Images of the Passion: The Sacramental Mode in Film (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1998)

Johnston, Robert K., ed. Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)

Lederach, John Paul, The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Peace Building. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005)

Maisto, Maria Consuelo, "Cinematic Communion?: Babette's Feast, Transcendental Style and Interdisciplinarity," in S. Brent Plate and David Jasper, eds. Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together. (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1999)

Ortiz, Gaye Williams, "Opportunities for Dialogue with Religion and Theology," in Robert K. Johnston, ed. Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)

Rule Thirteen: Special Rules for the Foreign Language Film Award" in The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Online. 13.html (Accessed 1 March 2013).

Schillebeeckx, Edward, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. John Bowden. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1980; rpt. 1993)

Schreiter, Robert J., ed. The Schillebeeckx Reader. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1984)

Sison, Antonio D., Screening Schillebeeckx: Theology and Third Cinema in Dialogue. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

Sison, Antonio D., World Cinema, Theology, and the Human: Humanity in Deep Focus. (New York and London: Routledge, 2012)

Wright, Melanie, Religion and Film: An Introduction. (London: Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007)

(1) Antonio D. Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human: Humanity in Deep Focus. (New York and London: Routledge, 2012), p. 1

(2) Robert K. Johnston, ed. Reframing Theology and Film: New Focus for an Emerging Discipline. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), p. 15.

(3) Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human, p. 2. In my previous book, I argue, "over and above the overriding preoccupation with thematic and other literary elements, a more serious regard for style offers a distinctly cinematic approach to the Theology-Cinema confluence." Antonio D. Sison, Screening Schillebeeckx: Theology and Third Cinema in Dialogue. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), p. 5.

(4) Melanie Wright, Religion and Film: An Introduction. (London: Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007), p. 22.

(5) For a theological discussion of Babette's Feast that gives some attention to cinematic language, refer to Peter Fraser, Images of the Passion: The Sacramental Mode in Film (Westport: Praeger Publishers, 1998), p. 107-116. Moreover, Maria Consuelo Maisto examines the uncritical blurring of "techniques of literary interpretation with approaches to film" in the interpretation of Babette's Feast, "Cinematic Communion?: Babette's Feast, Transcendental Style and Interdisciplinarity," S. Brent Plate and David Jasper, eds. Imag(in)ing Otherness: Filmic Visions of Living Together. (Atlanta: Scholar's Press, 1999), p. 83.

(6) "Rule Thirteen: Special Rules for the Foreign Language Film Award" in The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Online. (Accessed 1 March 2013). For an excellent discussion on the definition of world cinema, refer to Gaye Williams Ortiz, "Opportunities for Dialogue with Religion and Theology," Johnston, ed. Reframing Theology and Film, p. 74-76.

(7) Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human, p. 4

(8) Sigurd Bergmann, In the Beginning is the Icon: A Liberative Theology of Images, Visual Arts and Culture, trans. Anja K. Angelsen. (London: Equinox Publishing, 2009), p. 7.

(9) Craig Detweiler, Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), p. 43.

(10) Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human, p. 6.

(11) From an interview featured in Tele-cine no. 173 (March-April 1967):6, as cited in Joseph Cunneen, Robert Bresson: A Spiritual Style in Film. (New York: Continuum International, 2006), p. 108.

(12) Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human, p. 6.

(13) Robert J. Schreiter, ed. The Schillebeeckx Reader. (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1984), p. 17.

(14) Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Experience of Jesus as Lord, trans. John Bowden. (New York: Crossroad Publishing, 1980; rpt. 1993), p. 741.

(15) Ibid., p. 55.

(16) Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human, p. 8.

(17) Sison, Screening Schillebeeckx: Theology and Third Cinema in Dialogue, p. 149-150.

(18) "It is not the first time for Danny Boyle to resort to 'toilet imagery' to translate a theme in a fashion that is truly cinematic. In a surreal scene in his earlier work Trainspotting (1996), Boyle pulls no punches in depicting the codependent nature of drug addiction by having the protagonist Renton dive into a disgusting toilet bowl in a public facility labelled 'The Worst Toilet in Scotland' to retrieve opium suppositories he had dropped there." Sison, World Cinema, Theology, and the Human, p. 84-85.

(19) John Paul Lederach, who writes about serendipity within the context of peace-building, correctly describes it as "learning more from mistakes than successes." He takes "mistakes" here to mean the unplanned, unexpected things and occurrences that happen along the road that become signposts to deeper insight. The Moral Imagination: The Art and Soul of Peace Building. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), p. 115.

(20) Ibid.
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Title Annotation:p. 323-356
Author:Kickasola, Joseph; Lyden, John C.; Plate, S. Brent; Sison, Antonio; Nayar, Sheila J.; Knauss, Stefan
Publication:Journal of Religion and Film
Article Type:Discussion
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2013
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Next Article:Facing Forward, Looking Back: Religion and Film Studies in the Last Decade.

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