June 11, 2002
What do you believe?
If you ask adults this question, you are bound to hear a variety of answers. But most will have taken the time to develop a clear sense of their beliefs and their faith. If you ask a group of teenagers, on the other hand, you will probably get an ever-shifting set of answers. You may also hear some thoughtful, inspiring answers.
It is for both these reasons-- inspiration and an element of surprise-- that Bay Area filmmaker Sarah Feinbloom set out to make "What Do You Believe?", a new documentary about young people and their religious beliefs and practices.
In a style reminiscent of MTV's "The Real World," the film includes interviews with a number of teens but focuses on six who are particularly articulate about their beliefs. Although the teens in "What Do You Believe" differ in many ways, they all feel a strong connection to their respective belief systems, which range from the typical (Catholicism) to the rare-- (Paganism and Native American spirituality) in varying degrees.
Mazouza is a young Muslim woman who turned to her family religion after a rebellious stage in which she says she was "kicked out of the eighth grade." She says that Islam makes her, "feel [she is] worth something." David, on the other hand, who is Jewish and from a mixed-race background, tell us that he is at a point of doubt. "Everyone has good and bad times," he says, "and I don't think that believing in God is going to change that either way."
The film touches on a number of important themes, such as the importance of family in the shaping of one's spiritual life and the role of ritual and prayer. The youth in the film also touch on social issues, and make connections to their belief systems. For instance, David connects the shift in his faith with the time when he started to learn about the Holocaust and slavery. The mere fact that such terrible things are possible, he says, caused him doubt to existance of a higher power. On a similar note, Carina, a young Buddhist girl, tells a story about a mail man who urges her not to offer assistance to a homeless person. "The biggest thing that bothers me about the world today," she tells the audience, "is how selfish we've become."
Feinbloom says that teens' openness and curiosity, as well as their concern for the world around them make them prime subjects for a film that she hopes will promote tolerance in a world where religious differences cause bloodshed.
Having grown up in a segregated, divided society, Feinbloom has always been interested in the things people have in common. With this film she wanted to examine diversity that surpasses mere skin color.
In a recent interview, she spoke about her motivation. "We all ask the same big life questions like, 'What happens When We Die?' and 'What is the meaning of Life?' These are the thing that we all worry and think about," she said. Just knowing that we all ask the same questions, Feinbloom believes, has the potential to bring us together. "If we are to live peacefully, we have to understand others' perspectives," she says.
In the film, Carina talks about those who use their faith to intimidate or convert other people. "When someone manipulates religion and makes it contepmtuous toward non-believers then it defeats the entire purpose of religion,"she says, Even Anthony, a Catholic altar boy who says "I wouldn't be who I am if it weren't for the Catholic church," is also developing a critical sense of his upbringing. He feels strong ties to the Catholic community but admits that he disagress with the church about issues like abortion and pre-marital sex. When asked about the consequences in the afterlife, he says, "I'd rather do something on this earth that satisfies me as a person than go to Heaven."
Like the other teens in the film, he is grappling with uncertainty--this is what makes the film so interesting. Adolescence is a time for changing, questioning, and exploring. As Feinbloom says, its more exciting to see struggle and change." She has a point: Wouldn't we rather go along on a journey than listen to the stories of one who has already arrived?
"Teens are often the subject of stories about alcohol and drugs, crime reports, and educational statistics" says Feinbloom, "but rarely are they asked for their intellect and perspective." Feinbloom's film is an important effort in the movement to give young people a voice about their own experiences. Because as Mazouza believes, "young people will listen to young people."
In some ways, the question, "what do you believe?" remains unanswered in this documentary. But it re-surfaces throughout as a way to get both the youth in the film and the audience thinking, at a time when religion and spirituality are anything but popular among today's teens. Feinbloom also hopes that the film's format will urge viewers to consider how wide the array of possible answers can be. With this attention to others' beliefs comes awareness. With awareness can come acceptance and peace.
The last sequence of "What Do You Believe?" follows a young Native American boy living on a reservation named Julius Notafraid. Unlike the other teens in the film, Julius feels an enormous amount of responsibility to his ancestors to learn the traditional practices and maintain a sense of spirituality in his life. Otherwise he says, "the teachings will dissapear." Julius is shown beating a drum and dancing at a Pow-Wow, and speaks sincerely about his tribe's core values. His beliefs are in sharp contrast to the other young people in the film, in that they are never portrayed as separate from who he is, where he lives, and what he does on a daily basis. When he is asked about what will happen after he dies he speaks calmly about "the other side," which he sees as a place where his ancestors are happy.
Feinbloom hopes that people like Julius will speak to the larger national conversation. She says: "I want young people from different backgrounds to watch it, talk about it, discuss it--together. I want them to talk about being alive."
Seon Hye Moon 17, is a junior at Washington High School and a WireTap contributing writer.