Transcendent faith and transporting spirituality are not beyond the reach of the motion picture camera, as anyone who saw Carl Theodor Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc at Oakland's Paramount Theatre last week will attest. It is paradoxical and miraculous, is it not, that an art form so riveted on reality and verisimilitude can capture the most elusive and intangible aspects of human experience. The trick, one might say, is seeing between the frames.
The four entrancing programs at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts comprising the San Francisco leg of the International Buddhist Film Festival: Showcase 2010 aspire to engage the viewer very differently than most movies. No adrenaline rushes, no contrived conflicts, no deeply felt yet wittily self-deprecating soliloquies on the frustration of finding one's perfect, airbrushed soul mate. Then again, the existential pursuit of self-knowledge, and the meaning of life, would seem to provide all the drama one truly needs.
Shugendo Now, a contemporary, meditative look at the venerable Japanese ascetic practice, opens the series Dec. 9 with filmmakers Jean-Marc Abela and Mark Patrick McGuire in person. Gorgeous scenery is guaranteed, as mountain worship and the preservation of nature are integral to shugendo. You can count on one of cinema's most time-honored joys, namely being conveyed to a distant, foreign world while your body is ensconced in a seat in this world.
Lush beauty and sensory pleasure -- the incontrovertible evidence of man's aspirations toward loftier achievement -- is offered in abundance December 16 via a pair of one-hour documentaries from the early 1990s. John Junkerman's self-explanatory Dream Window: Reflections on the Japanese Garden marries breathtaking 35mm imagery with a score by the late Toru Takemitsu to ravishing effect, while Lucille Carra's Inland Sea blends Japan savant Donald Richie's narration with evocative, resonant views photographed by the profoundly talented Bay Area cinematographer Hiro Narita (who will be in attendance).
"Lucia Rijker: Boxer, Buddhist"
If the first two programs invite the viewer to patiently gauge his or her own path to enlightened revelation, the remaining shows offer compelling, charismatic guides through the contradictions and distractions of the modern world. Lucia Rijker: Boxer, Buddhist (December 16) introduces us to the champion kickboxer who co-starred in Clint Eastwood's Million Dollar Baby. Navigating a Hollywood film set is one thing, but the frenetic aftermath of evaluating newfound opportunities without losing one's faith, focus or soul -- the real subject of George Schouten's documentary -- is quite another.
"Seeing Searching Being"
The wealthy publisher and self-portrait painter William Segal, who died a decade ago at the age of 95, was a dedicated student of Eastern philosophy who did much to link those precepts with Western spirituality. In his last years, Segal produced a trilogy of shorts with the historian and filmmaker Ken Burns that was released in 1999 as Seeing Searching Being (December 19). The professor and author Dr. Jacob Needleman will provide a hefty chunk of context and insight before the film, but let's add one observation: Epiphanies still abound in movie theaters all over the world.
The International Buddhist Film Festival Showcase runs Thursday, December 9 through Sunday, December 19 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, 701 Mission (at Third St.) in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit www.ybca.org.