In an age of Sam Harris’ The End of Faith and Christopher Hitchens’ God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything , it might be considered a minor miracle when an artist-observer-seeker in our day has the depth, courage and intellectual honesty to search in earnest for God in our world — and then admit to God’s reality if and when he finds it. In Peter Rodger’s new film OH MY GOD , opening November 13 in Los Angeles and New York and in select theaters nationwide thereafter, the faith-based viewer is steeled for yet another neo-atheist assault as Rodger embarks on a worldwide journey asking people, “What is God?” But Rodger confounds our expectations by allowing the warmth of his pilgrimage to emerge honestly and without the sarcasm or derision that we’ve come to expect in this age of aggressive skepticism. What results is a breathtaking documentary that affirms traditional faith despite the filmmaker’s lingering ambivalence, and offers the best Hollywood-driven opportunity for fruitful inter-religious dialogue in recent memory. Following is a conversation with the filmmaker.
Q. What was your inspiration for making your epic documentary film, OH MY GOD ?
I was frustrated with the childish schoolyard mentality that permeates this world — I call it the “My God Is Greater Than Your God” syndrome — where you have grown men flying airplanes into buildings shouting “God is Great” — where you have the leader of the free world telling the BBC in 2003 that he invaded Iraq because God told him to — where you have the constitution of a country (Iran) that dictates that its supreme leader is God’s representative on earth — where you have young men and women blowing themselves up (and innocent others) to buy a place into heaven. None of these concepts made any sense to me. Does it matter what I believe? Does it matter what you believe? And what is this entity that goes by the name of God, which seems to bring about so much friction, hurt and pain? I decided to go around the world and ask people what they think.
Q. Why did you ask, ‘What is God?’ versus ‘Who is God?,’ since most of us personalize God in some form or another?
I wanted to look at God as a concept and be as objective as possible. Referring to God as “who” is already putting the concept into the image of Man and therefore the objectivity becomes lost. I wanted to get as far away from preconceived ideas as possible to see what I would find. I felt that phrasing the question as “what is…” instead of “who is…” would make the interviewee immediately look at God from the outside-in rather than the inside-out, and thereby help quench preconceptions. I wanted the film to have a wide application and ultimately get to the question, “Did God create man, or did man create God?
Q. Did you set out with a goal in mind? Did you find a common theme in the answers you received?
My goal was to find out what “God” means to people, and to determine whether religion and religious people were causing all the world’s problems. There was such commonality in all the responses that at one point I didn’t even think I had a film. It was frustrating because all the answers seemed to be the same from all over the world. “God is everything…” “God is the creator…” “God is in the birds and the bees in the trees…” “God is the energy that binds us all together….” etc., etc. And then it occurred to me that if there are all these placid descriptions, why is there so much turmoil, upheaval and war in the name of God? I realized that the problem in the world may be what Man does with “God” — how he uses it to control other men, how he twists the preaching of its prophets to create politicized clubs that serve his narrow ends. When I realized that it was Man creating God in his own image, I knew I had a film.
Q. What criterion were set in place for which countries you visited and interviewees you sought? Did you try to interview leaders such as Cardinal George or the Dalai Lama?
I had to have representation from as many diverse places as possible in order to capture as wide a spectrum of faith expressions as possible. You can’t, of course, make a film about who or what people think God is without going to the Holy Land. Indigenous cultures are also important, so Australia, the United States and Tribal Africa were a must. I wanted celebrities in the film to help navigate us through, so their geographical locations and schedules became a factor. Then Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims had to be represented somewhere, so that dictated India, Bali, Rome, Mexico, Morocco, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories, UK. I wanted the Mayans in there too, so Guatemala… Put all of that in a melting pot and I passed the buck over to American Express Platinum Travel and that’s how we made the schedule!
Most religious leaders turned us down — and I am very thankful that they did, because they are all “professional God people,” so all I would have gotten was politicized rhetoric and theology. The film is not about religion and its leaders. The film is about who or what people think God is. If I had the Dalai Lama in the film, I would’ve had to have the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then Ali Khamenei and other religious people and my film would be really, really boring.
Q Is it true you that encountered some difficulties when you first set out to make this film and almost gave it up?
My first trip in 2006 was to Morocco and I chose the same day to fly that the British terrorist plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives was foiled by Scotland Yard. I was flying out of LAX to Tangiers via Heathrow with all my camera equipment. Normally you take the important stuff as hand luggage — phone, camera, notes, lenses, computer, stock, etc., but this was the first day in aviation history that hand luggage was completely banned. We had to check everything into the hold and needless to say, I never saw my equipment, notes, or toothbrush again. Because of the delay, however, I hit on a succession of events in which I was in the right place at the right time, something that would never have happened if I had started shooting two months earlier. In over 227 shooting days, I didn’t have a single weather problem. So I’ve come to believe that out of every negative there is a positive of exactly the same magnitude — maybe not exactly at the same time, but there always is one.
Q. What moved or surprised you the most on your filmmaking journey?
How very small the world is. How similar all of us are and how blind most of us are to that fact. The similarities in belief-systems transcend time and geographical boundaries and this was the case long before the birth of the telephone, the airplane and the internet. I was also moved by the enormous desire for peace on the part of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is very clear to me that it is the politicians who are messing that situation up. It doesn’t seem to be a conflict of religion at all. It is a conflict of Land, politics and EMOTION.
Q. Did you meet anyone who made a powerful spiritual impact on you?
Kanju Tanaka, the Zen master in Kyoto, was my favorite for inspiration. As soon as I walked into his temple, I had an unbelievable feeling. That temple is one of most peaceful places in Kyoto, and when he sat us down for tea I choked up. There was such a vibe! I want to go back and spend three weeks scraping his gravel. He made so much sense in so few words. The other guy I really liked was Sonkyo Takito. He’s the 105th superior priest of Shitennoji temple in Osaka. Those guys really did it for me. I was also moved by the generosity of the Indian people — the Hindus and the Sikhs especially — and also by the Maasai in Kenya, a wonderfully cultured group in their own simple way. Kind people with big skies.
Q. Any personal spiritual insights from your journey?
That the natural human instinct within each one of us from the day we are born seems to be what the prophets would call, “Godliness.” It became very clear that this beautiful humanity does exist across the world and it is very unfortunate that human beings twist it to their own way of thinking in the name of God. I acquired the sense that we are much more united on this earth than divided. You only have to look into children’s eyes to see the spark of this “thing” that is common to all of us. It is the glue that binds us all together.
Q . Speaking of children, the children in the cancer center you interviewed were extremely touching and profound. What made you decide to interview them?
Children seem to be vessels of what can be described as Godliness. I love the truth of children, the generosity of their spirits. I felt that the most accurate or inspired opinion on God could come from a child who is facing possible death. A young one who can’t be running around with friends today because he is lying in a hospital bed with a shaved head, in pain, vomiting, and thinking whether he’s going to climb out of this predicament or not. What would his views on God be? I learned so much from these children. Hanging out with them, I have to say, was one of the most harrowing and rewarding experiences of my life. The courage, the confidence, the wisdom and the grace that came out of those little people made me grow up a little more, made me learn a lot and made me thankful that my own children are healthy, that I am healthy, and that we really have no right to complain about our silly little things. When we bitch about someone else because they belong to a different “club” than we do, well, we’re just missing the point. And when I asked Christian, one of the children, what his biggest wish was, well, his answer — and I’m not going to give it away — let’s just say it blew me away.
Q. Your worldwide premiere of the film took place at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. What was it like debuting in the Holy Land and what sort of response did you receive from the audience?
The response was phenomenal. Q/A sessions that were meant to be only 20 minutes wouldn’t end. It is such a charged place, the Holy Land, as far as God is concerned, that the audience really lapped up the global objective questioning that goes on in the film. Of course, there is a whole section in the film on the Israeli-Palestinian issue (it’s very difficult to make a film about what people think God is without including such a subject) so of course that section was under a lot of scrutiny. I am happy to say that none of the Palestinians I have shown the film to have been offended and no Israelis I have shown the film to have been offended. PHEW! But the reaction was certainly charged. They embraced and loved the film there. It took us eight weeks to edit that section.
Q. Did you encounter any danger in certain areas? For example, how were you able to capture insights from Muslim extremists?
Finding Muslim extremists to talk on camera was extremely hard, as you might imagine. In the end the best and most radical English-speaking gentleman came to me — quite by chance. I was shooting in a mosque — somewhere in the world that I don’t wish to divulge, and as I exited, he aggressively approached me and asked in very good English, “Are you Muslim?” I said I was not. Then he said, “Then what [was I] doing in the mosque?” I said I was filming and why couldn’t I be in the mosque anyway? He said that non-Muslims were not allowed in the mosque, and that I should not be there. I said, “Really? Well you know what — I’d love to ask you some questions about this. Would it be possible to film you?” I told him what the film was about and surprisingly he agreed. I cancelled my afternoon shoot (I had a whole load of stuff lined up) and spent the rest of the day with him. He was very accommodating and spoke his mind.
Finding Muslim militant terrorists was tough indeed and took over a year. I had to go up into hidden areas of Kashmir and find them. I had help from powerful friends. Getting them to talk on camera with language barriers and the very charged nature of the questions was difficult. The point is, most of these extremists are just poor, ill-educated villagers that are promised better food, living conditions and support of their families – as well as salvation in the afterlife – if they join the Taliban or other extremist Jihadist groups. Underneath it all, they are just scared human beings who are being brainwashed into carrying out evil acts. Their evil leaders are not going to talk on my camera — especially as I was a one-man-show, without a CNN or BBC behind me. What you did not see was behind my camera: I had about 17 armed guards with machine guns — my “escort.” So this was one of those moments. We made it to the village and found the guys who were going to talk. I set up my camera and turned it on. NOTHING. It was dead. Something was wrong with the power going from the battery to the camera. I was thinking, “Oh no, not here, not at this place, not today, not after all this work finding these guys. This is really bad.” I had a back-up power supply that I could run off a car battery, but I needed a cigarette lighter to plug it into and none of our transport had cigarette lighters. I shared this problem with all the very armed people around me, and soon we were off in the trucks with the terrorists into the local town. We dug out a man who was sleeping under a sheet of plastic. He turned out to be the local electrician, and I kid you not, within 20 minutes he had soldered a car battery with a cigarette lighter. We all piled into the trucks, plugged in the camera, and it worked!
Was I under any kind of danger on this trip? Yeah, all the time. But I never felt it. I just felt humanity.
Q. What about the more day-to-day filmmaking problems such as transporting equipment, crowd control and such. How did you manage with a “skeleton” crew?
Very easily. There were two of us, but we had both shot many times around the world. We could sneak in and out of countries and no one would know we were making a theatrically releasable movie. Modern technology helped a lot. Furthermore, this was a documentary and there didn’t have to be continuity from scene to scene like in a drama, so that gave me enormous license to put people where the light was right, use the resources I had in front of my eyes rather than creating a scene to match the previous one. Our equipment fit into four bags. I still have a bad back from it.
Q. What did you personally take away from the making of OH MY GOD ?
I really warmed up to the immense humanity and humor I found in people. Get the most vehemently radical militant face-to-face and even he, who has killed and maimed and blown people up in the name of God, could crack a joke. One-on-one he was not the animal he had once been in my mind and maybe still was. I realized that we all have a responsibility to live our lives with tolerance and understanding for our fellow man. Don’t be barbaric and ignorant. Learn about different cultures and soon one realizes how very much the same we all are, that most barriers are of our own creation, that hostility is manufactured by power-seeking humans and has nothing to do with God. I learned that the world is way more united than divided, but most of us are conditioned to believe otherwise.
Q. Usually is it books that are turned into films, however you have decided to write a book about your filmmaking experience. Can you tell us about that?
It’s one helluva story. It’s quite a journey and I kept a journal throughout. The quest was very hard and very surprising and the story has many components that are relevant in these difficult, polarized times. I wrote the first chapter and sent it off to a publisher and they loved the concept. Without sounding pompous, it really will be compelling reading and there is so much more to add. There are some extremely funny moments too that have to be shared.
Q. This is your first feature documentary. How did your background in photography and commercials help you prepare for filmmaking?
I was blessed by having a great teacher — my father, George Rodger — who was a Life Magazine war photojournalist and went on to found Magnum Photos with Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson, and Chim Seymour. He taught me how to see and about composition. Then I was blessed by working in advertising for many years directing TV commercials and doing print campaigns. OH MY GOD , is just an extension of that privileged education and experience.
Q. What do you hope the viewer will take away from your film?
I would like the viewers to be ambassadors to the discussion the film creates. I would like viewers to be educated in the fact that we share this world with many diverse groups who are very much like we are and that the way forward is to understand our similarities and not obsess about those with different beliefs. If a viewer is religious, I would love them to take away from this film the desire to study their religion themselves, to understand their holy book and not rely on other human beings who might be manipulating the meanings of their scriptures. I would like viewers to come away exhilarated, with a feeling of having had an amazing journey and adventure with me seeing places they would never see normally, hearing music that inspires and words that enlighten and fill them with love, understanding and tolerance toward the other individuals who share our planet. If we are to succeed in having a peaceful, fulfilling life we should listen to other cultures and learn from other people to enrich our existence on this wandering rock.