Filmmaker Explores a God of Multiple Identities

Leslie Foster, Southern graduate and filmmaker, brought the beginning of his Ritual Cycle film installation to our UltraViolet Arts Festival in September. Now he is placing the project at an art gallery, hoping to push viewers into discomfort and exploring God beyond the little boxes.

Question: In your latest project, called Ritual Cycle, you are creating an art installation made up of five short films portraying God in various guises, including a woman and gender queer. Is that right?

Answer: Ritual Cycle is a film installation that explores divine identity through five short films, which incorporate unique rituals. These include explorations of the Divine as feminine, as genderqueer (or as a genderqueer person, to phrase it in a slightly different way), as sibling, and as lover. I would say these are not guises, but God in all God's amazing possibilities. It is an attempt to show God in a way that dissolves the boxes in which we normally place Her. God beyond our gender binary and even our conceptions of God as simply a trinity. The five rituals explore lament, cleansing, hope, rest, and celebration.

So far, two of the five short (five-minute) films have been completed (and can be viewed on online).In the first, called "Mother Godde, a Ritual of Lament," a woman in white walks into the dessert and performs a ritual — you describe it as exploring "the concept of divinity as undeniably feminine and as a grief-stricken parent." Can you explain your process of inspiration and how you came to create this scene?

Inspiration for me is always a spiritual thing, but it happens in all kinds of different ways. Most of the time through hard work, spending each day in the practice of creating, sometimes through amazing flashes that just hit me. "Mother Godde" happened in one of those flashes. I saw the scene, the ritual, all at once, then I just had to flesh it out. I've always enjoyed liturgy, ritual spaces, and the surreal. I think those all fused in the creation of Ritual Cycle.

Experimental film is such an amazing way to explore the divine. God is so far beyond what we can imagine or verbalize. Sometimes it takes burying the words we have into images so we can explore things we can't express at all and emotions for which we have no words.

Without reading the title or description, how would a viewer know you are depicting an image of God?

I would say that it's likely that the viewer won't know explicitly that this is a depiction of God if they don't read the title or description. I'm okay with this. I think God has a beautiful way of approaching us in a wonderfully quiet and subtle way at times, often without announcing any presence.

For the few people who see this without title or description, I hope we have created something that allows them the safety to feel their emotions fully, to explore their own rituals a little more closely. In this, I hope we've opened a door to the divine, as Jesus would say, for those of have ears to hear and eyes to see. But this also must be a safe space for those who claim no religious belief. If someone wants to come into the space and have an experience stripped of any religious or spiritual trappings, they should be able to do that; I want them to feel safe too.

The amazing thing about art is that we just started the journey — people will come with their perspectives and interpretations and have their own experiences that we can't dictate at all. We have created a space that has the potential to be a gentle guide, but doesn't force the viewer to head toward our ideal definitions.

I think this is the perpetual dance between the artist, the Divine, and the audience. We let it go and hope beyond hope that we've created something that will create a spark in someone else. We want to be visual parable-makers and if we can leave viewers as curious (and sometimes) confused as Jesus left his listeners, I don't think that's a bad thing at all.

In the second film, two men perform a ritual dance in an abandoned warehouse, holding mops of fire. How was this specific dance decided on? Is this an actual ritual performed somewhere? How was it choreographed?

The second ritual, of cleansing, has several points of inspiration. A few years ago, I was at a Burning Man-relates event and was watching fire dancers perform. When the performance was over, a dancer came and mopped the stage with flame to clean off the remaining fuel. I was captivated by how beautiful it was and knew it had to be incorporated into a project.

The ritual of cleansing is also a ritual of service — God as servant. Scott Arany, my creative partner and I, thought creating a dance with flaming mops would be an excellent ritual for this concept. I worked with a fantastic choreographer, Angelina Prendergast (who also co-stars in the third ritual) to craft the dance seen in the ritual.

Scott and I thought it would be important to create unique rituals for the project. So many faiths have injured people and we didn't want visitors to the gallery space to be triggered or feel defensive before they even have a chance to explore the films. In wanting to break down the walls we place around the divine, we found it was important to craft rituals from scratch.

I believe you have lived all over the world, including Asia, Europe and America. Were your parents Adventist missionaries? What accounted for your constant movement?

I have lived all over the world, due at first to the fact that my parents were and still are Adventist teachers (they currently work in Thailand; my mother is the administrator of an elementary school and high school and my father is a business professor).

As an adult, I've moved around because I've had the amazing chance to work in a few different countries as a filmmaker and I'm an urban nomad, I truly love traveling.

Clearly, your travels have inspired your filmmaking, as the images you portray feel very "ethnic" for want of a better word. Is there any specific culture, religion or country you had in mind as you were creating these films?

There isn't a specific culture or religion we had in mind when we created these films. The words we kept repeating in our creative meetings was "otherworldly" or "alien." We wanted the rituals to feel novel with touches of familiarity. The music for "Mother Godde" was created by Scott with the aid of Rainbow Underhill who has studied Jewish and Balinese music, and Britta Kay, a Jewish cantor.

And speaking of music, it seems you worked closely with musician and composer Scott Arany to create these films. How did you come to work together? How much of a creative influence did he have?

Scott is my collaborator and creative equal for this project. He composed most of the music and as a gifted liturgist and theologian, worked with me to craft each of the rituals. We met at the Hollywood Adventist Church and quickly found we shared quite a few interests (and a birthday). We worked on little projects for years and when I was first inspired to create "Mother Godde," I knew that he would be the perfect creative partner.

I believe you are raising money right now to help place your installation at the Level Ground Film Festival in Pasadena, and so far have about $3,000 — half of your goal. Why do you need to raise these funds for the festival? Where is the money coming from in general?

While Level Ground Film Festival is our main presenting sponsor and I serve as their artist-in-residence, the gallery show will not take place at the festival proper. We are currently raising funds in order to have a five-day run at a gallery in Hollywood or downtown Los Angeles at the end of February. Our goal is $6,300 and we have currently received pledges for $4,300. The budget includes funds for materials (wood, cloth, projectors, speakers) needed to build the installation, rent for the gallery space, and payment for our installation designer.

What has been the response to your films in Ritual Cycle so far? Who has seen them? What message do you hope that people who have seen them come away with? What would be your ultimate goal for this installation, if it could go anywhere?

Over the last three years, the first two films of Ritual Cycle have been shown at group gallery shows as well as at several Level Ground film festivals. We've had a pretty wide variety of people view the projects, though at this point, the audience has leaned majority Christian, which is something we'd like to change. The exploration of the divine is far larger than any one belief group. The response so far has been very positive, with the occasional confused reaction (which I don't mind at all!). It's been exciting and humbling to see a group of people become avid supporters of the project.

Scott and I want people to leave the installation having found a safe space to express their joy or grief or hope. We want them to be empowered to push into discomfort and explore God beyond the little boxes in which they have placed God. I hope we have created visuals that stay with people for a while and that are aesthetically nourishing for them.

As far as where we'd like to see the project go? We'd love to create a package with the project that we can use to help people create unique rituals for their own communities. We're already working with some folks to create Ritual Cycle workshops. We'd also really like to take the five rituals on tour around North America and perhaps beyond.

How did you become a filmmaker?

My journey to becoming a filmmaker is a pretty tangled one, which involves spending three years studying pre-med biology, a German degree, and a few different countries; but the short answer is that I discovered that it was the perfect synthesis of so many things that I loved, from technology to fashion design, and a perfect way to explore a lot of things I hadn't found any other way to express.

Tell us about some of the other projects you are working on.

I'm currently working with a group of filmmakers on pitching a miniseries based on the life of young Frederick Douglass. We've written the pilot and have been working with our representation to get it to studios over the last year. I'm also working on a sci-fi webseries with some of the same filmmakers. Finally, I've been working on a documentary about violent homophobia in Jamaica since 2001.

I believe you studied filmmaking at Southern Adventist University. What made you choose Southern? Do you feel Southern helped you to hone your craft and become the filmmaker that you are?

I did study film at SAU and finished up in 2006. I think the Southern film program was very important in helping me hone my craft and giving me a strong set of tools that I was able to use in my professional career. It allowed me to challenge myself and stretch my artistic wings, something for which I am very grateful.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/7201
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Knowing God is a spiritual category only. On one side we have “scientific” attempts to get to know Him and here we have also artistic ones. The “scientific” ones always show them up as impossible, the artistic ones are abstract and individually dependent. No one is obliged to accept them as theirs. Everyone can have his own imagination of God. The only one which is indisputable is the image of the God Son.

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Yes. Isn’t it a wonderful God Who comes in Person, but also leaves and blesses us to our wild imaginings. Mysterium tremendum twixt amazing grace.

This project brings to mind a series I love by Joseph Campbell, Primitive Mythology: The Masks of God.

For an alternate, symbolic retelling of the Old Story, Leslie Foster should spend an attentive 10 minutes with David Bowie’s new music video. Conceptually both productions appear to be similar.

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Hmmmm. Lots of imagination and creativity went into this clip. It looks out of place to the modern mind IMO. If it comes with sub-titles to explain what’s happening, maybe. Otherwise its kind of spooky.

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I like these comments–
“the exploration of the divine is far larger than any one belief group.”
" ‘confused reaction’ which I dont mind. [a person probably needs to experience the visual more than once]
“the rituals of Cleansing is also a ritual of Service — God as Servant–Slave”
“a safe place for those who claim no religious belief”
"hope we have created something that allows

  1. Safety to feel their emotions fully
  2. Explore their rituals more closely
  3. Opened a door to the Divine.
  4. Feel safe to come into the space and have an experience stripped of any religion or spiritual trappings."

Experiences such as these and Blackstar sometimes have to be FELT through the Eyes more than once before one understands the Wordless Emotional Message with one’s being.
The Words of the Bible, underlying the scratches of black on paper, attempts to convey the FELT, the Emotional connection with the Divine, one’s Invisible Creator, Invisible Provider, Invisible Companion, Invisible Deliverer.
And, in a small way, be able to Imitate the Divine, much like a child attempts to imitate a parent, or some other beloved Adult.

In all the Mix of persons sitting, persons Visualizing, we do have to realize that some of us are More Right Brained, some of us are More Left Brained. So that is going to make some difference as to how each one interacts with Creations such as these.

Edit–
God — Our Father. Yes THIS is the Father we Do NOT have here on Earth. But God the Father wants to make it on Earth, as He has made it in Heaven. As we mature we let go of our father on earth, and become connected to Our Father Who Art In Heaven.
God – Our Brother. This is a relationship that is different from one’s Father. Perhaps we dont attempt to connect with Our Brother as much as we do Our Father. Maybe we miss a lot when we dont read Our Brother when the Scriptures addresses God’s name.
God — Our Comforter. We miss a lot when we dont read My Comforter when the Scripture addresses God’s name

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We have to admit, humanly speaking, God is necessarily inexplicable. The Jews were so awed by the idea of God they refused to even say His name. “We’ve come a long way, baby!”

In *Your God is too Small * J.B.Philips lays out the different ways people, and their organizations, think of God - all inadequate. He begins with God as the 'resident policeman - enforcing various strict behaviors; the grand old Man with white beard and much wisdom; escape artist- an indulgent parent that provides shelter every time a challenge comes along - “…Lover of my soul, Let me to Thy bosom fly…”; God in a box - God is the God of MY people, in this particular denomination; mystical vision where God is the source of MY exclusive spirituality; and so on… .

If the Bible is to be our guide to understand, even a little, the personhood of God, we have only one analogy available - God the Father. This , of course is a loaded designation since many in this convoluted world have some horrible fathers. and some, none at all. For those who have no favorable perception of a father, this may be big hurtle. Nevertheless, this is the one we have been given. With that image comes all the traditional qualities we associate with a “good father”. If some, with soaring artistic imagination can associate God with other images, I’m not going to complain; but it doesn’t work for me. Sorry - it is interesting, however.

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“Knowing God is a spiritual category only.”

That doesn’t strike me as a very holistic approach. If knowing God is spiritual only, why then a need for a physical incarnation, the physical image of the Son of God? If artistic ways are not true, why then the first outpouring of the Holy Spirit recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures be given to artisans and crafters—people who create beauty?

From a non-scriptural experience, I remember my science professors at La Sierra University, who saw in the study of science the wonder and beauty of God. One of the most devotional courses I ever took there was Astronomy. In fact the psalmist draws on contemplation of nature and astronomy as a way to seek understanding of God.

Furthermore, nobody is obligated to accept any category or interpretation as their way of knowing God—spiritual, artistic, scientific, physical, etc. An essential core element of most Christian theology is that of choice, of humanity’s free election. Even to say, “Here is your choice, but if you don’t choose the choice I want you’ve chosen wrong…” (which we sadly do in so much of our preaching and evangelism and soteriology) is to deny free election. To create abstract and individually dependent artwork is—in my experience and studies—to fully embrace the beautiful breadth and depth of human choice. To explore all the many choices available to us is imagination.

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Rohan, thank you for sharing some art and studies! Much appreciated.

Leslie and I have certainly found wild imaginings coming out of our Christian experience. Each one of these rituals can, in some way, connect to core Christian (even Adventist) theologies and ritual. We have a ritual of rest (Sabbath), a ritual of feasting (Communion), a ritual of cleansing (Footwashing, among many other possibilities), a ritual of lament (Crucifixion, Lamentations), a ritual of hope (“We have this hope that burns within our hearts!”). And we wanted to explore many of those ideas that are vital to our Christian and Adventist experience through imagery and rituals that are completely foreign to that tradition. To see the divine in the Other is to see God anew in ourselves.

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@niteguy2, I think you would enjoy watching both Rituals #1 and #2 (lament and cleansing) from the perspective you’re using to reflect on God our Comforter and God our Brother. Here is #2. https://vimeo.com/93277868

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On a bit of a tangent, I find it fascinating that Adventism—despite being often highly anti-ritual (being formed in a very plain and anti-Catholic expression of American frontier revivalist Christianity)—is very concerned with God’s own liturgy rituals. Everything about the heavenly sanctuary / desert tabernacle theologies Adventists have is focused entirely on the sacred rituals performed by God and / or Jesus in heaven, and how early earthly liturgical rituals pre-echoed that heavenly pattern.

One thing that Leslie Foster and I think about a lot when we plan this project is to consider rituals performed by Godde, and what we can learn about Godde through the actions and holy movements of Godde. What might Godde’s lament feel like? Godde’s hope? What might cleansing done by Godde look like?

Seems like we are being Adventist filmmakers more than we might think.

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Yes Christ is depicted in Scripture as a lion, a lamb, even a serpent. but then He came as a carpenter and vagabond, most important he cane as the Great Physician, and bread winner, calmer of the sea, no one should take liberties beyond, the healer of the sick, the feeder of the hungry, clothing of the naked, and visitor of those in prison… the present Middle East gives us opportunity to be Christ like., Yes He was rejected of men and wounded for our transgressions. it is by His stripes we are healed. But let us not go beyond Scripture in our depicting of Christ. When it comes to God, we do not have artistic license. Tom Z

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And why not? The earthly sanctuary service portrayed the plan of salvation service, and was also prophetic; it depicted what the Messiah would do when He came, as well as after He returned to heaven. How much the Israelites understood of this is up for debate, but Abraham, the ancestor of the Jews, understood some of it, at least, because Jesus said that Abraham “saw my day, and was glad.” The better we understand the sanctuary service, the better we can understand the plan of salvation.

I agree with you TZ. Something about these images just gives me a case of the heebie jeebies. It’s been awhile since I had the hj’s. I suppose it was the last time I was in Bali at one of those legong or barong or kecek fire dances. It was very interesting, but at times I felt like maybe I probably should have just gone shopping or something instead. I felt relief when it was over, like I had survived, escaped something spooky.

Are these two guys involved in a relationship by the way? Maybe I’m misinterpreting some clues.

Kristan, I am currently dating a very wonderful and devout woman. While Leslie is quality people anyone would be lucky to date, I am not that person.

Thank you for sharing about your heebie jeebies! When that happens to me I find that it’s a good time to pray, listen to God, wrestle what makes me uncomfortable, and trust that God is stronger than my fears or the trouble I face. Christ is with us. What is there to fear? Sometimes I even make art or write a song in my processing.

Like the apocalyptic literature in the Bible, there is strange and unusual imagery in the Ritual Cycle films. Some of it could even be scary (though fear isn’t our primary intention). Goodness knows if I received the Revelation of Jesus Christ, or saw some one of the seraphim, I’d be freaked out at first! It seems to be a very basic human response to divine revelation throughout scripture. To paraphrase CS Lewis, God is not a tame God (lion).

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