In his last film, Scared Sacred, director Velcrow Ripper journeyed to the ground zeros of the world in search of hope and spiritual strength. His new documentary, Fierce Light, runs in the same vein, but focuses on the remarkable activists that Ripper encounters, men and women who advocate the compassionate, spiritual activism that he believes we, as humans, desperately need.
Q. Why is it important that this story be told?
A. My films always begin with something that is happening inside myself, but that I also see reflected in the world around me. I think people are starting to feel like they're coming to a dead end with the old models of creating change in the world, especially some of the forms of activism that are focused on what we're against, as opposed to what we're for, and that are anger-based. I definitely found that with myself, and so I discovered a new kind activism that has its roots in the attitudes of Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr. You could call it compassionate activism or spiritual activism -- positive, celebrating life, and solution based.
At the same time there was as personal tragedy that happened in my life: my friend and fellow journalist Brad Will was killed in Oaxaca. He was a media activist like I am, and we use our films and documentaries to help create social change in the world. It raised the stakes for me, and forced me to ask some hard questions.
I realized that the spirituality that could cope with the breadth of the crisis in the world and the personal crisis that I was confronting had to be almost like an industrial strength spirituality, a kind of soul force -- what I call a fierce light, that can weather these kinds of storms.
Q. What obstacles did you encounter during the planning and production of this film?
A. In Oaxaca I found myself in one of the most dangerous situations of my life as a camera man, and I've filmed in Afghanistan, in Palestine, and in war zones all over the world. I ended up in a situation where I was the last foreign journalist in the same city where Brad had been killed, and the death squad radio put out a call to get all foreigners. There were pickup trucks of armed men driving up and down the streets grabbing people, and it was actually hard to get out of town at that point because they were taking people as they left town.
On that last day before I left, there was a single act of rebellion that occurred that was quite beautiful. A woman appeared in the midst of the square surrounded by the paramilitary, filled with these [military] people, and she was dressed as an angel. She took a bucket of water and some soap and the Mexican flag and put on a whole pantomime of washing the corruption out of the Mexican flag. It was because of the creativity of her action and the nonviolence of it that she was actually able to make that statement, whereas any other form of activism they would have been violently opposed. They were torturing people at that point, and people were being killed. This was an example of spiritual activism, a surprising, creative and positive way of making a statement. .
Q. How did your understanding of the subject change during the duration of the project?
A. My films are often driven by my desire to understand what the title means. Scared Sacred was my previous film, and was about my journeys to the ground zeros of the world in search of stories of hope. In that film I was continually deepening my understand of what those two words meant, searching for the sacred inside the scared.
With Fierce Light, again, it was a paradox. It's that idea of the fierceness, which is the activism, and the light, which is the inner consciousness, or the inner self. Often we seem to have a schizophrenic relationship between the inner and the
outer, the fierce and the light, but in actual fact we need both.
Q. Can you tell me something that happened during production shocked you?
A. This is a small thing, but I was surprised when I went to the farm to spend time with Darryl Hannah, a character in Fierce Light, and she's a tree-sitter. I was surprised to get to know her and see how a superstar like her is actually very shy. Extremely. She's quite a lovely person, and not at all what you would expect from the character she portrays; she's usually this powerful Amazonian. Also, she has an incredible passion and commitment to the environment, and that was surprising. It wasn't just a celebrity kick. She actually ended up going up a tree for a month to try to help save the south central farms (?) despite her fear of heights. So she's somebody who does have all these fears, but she continues to make her mark in the world despite them.
Q. Which film at this festival is on your must-see list?
A. Laughology by Albert Nerenberg. I love the idea of a film about laughing. I think we all need to laugh a lot more.
Q. What doc do you wish you'd made?
A. I would love to have worked on Sound Soliel by Chris Marker. It's one of the classic poetic experimental films, a French documentary. I also would have loved to have been a part of An Inconvenient Truth. I feel like it made such an important change, and had such an impact on our understanding of our relationship to climate change. I would have been honoured to have been involved with it. Films and documentaries can actually make a big difference to our whole understanding of what it is to be human.
Q. How do you feel about directors like Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock who have chosen a more personal narrative style?
A. I would say it's all skillful means. Whatever it takes to get these very important messages out to the mainstream, go for it. If Bono is going to start a red campaign to help AIDS in Africa, I'm down with that. If Michael Moore has got to be a bit rude to get his job done, go for it, or if that's what gets him heard, go for it. I've been called a skinny, polite, Canadian Michael Moore, but I don't have his personality at all. I interview people I like. I don't look for the dirt -- I let him do that.
Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action plays tonight at 7:30pm at Toronto's Royal Cinema as part of Hot Docs. It also plays on Sunday at 4:15pm at the Cumberland Theatre. For more information visit Hotdocs.ca.
Fierce Light also opens in limited national release on May 15th. For more details visit Fiercelight.org.
For The Ampersand review of the film, click here.