"MANA-beyond belief" is a stunningly beautiful 92 minute 'round-the-world journey of discovery in search of things which have the power to produce a sense of awe and wonder in those who believe in them.
The movie is shot in state-of-the-art High Definition video to bring each moviegoer into the closest possible "virtual" contact with the objects, places and people it visits, and to provide the sensation of seeing things first-hand along with believers. After a quick introduction by two New Zealand Maori leaders who provide clues to the meaning of their word mana, we set off to see for ourselves how mana turns upin a variety of guises everywhere.
We kneel next to medicine men inside a Navajo hogan in Arizona to witness a crystal-gazing ceremony. We climb a mist-enshrouded peak in Burma where believers gather beneath a huge, precariously-balanced golden boulder to greet the return of the full moon. We join a group of Japanese businessmen in their riotous celebration of the blossoming of an ancient cherry tree, and we enter a high-security nuclear reactor where German scientists make paintings radioactive to determine their history-and their real value.
We meet a US Congressman who explains a near-magical transfer of energy onto American flags, and we jostle among masses gathered to welcome the return of their ancestors' spirits at a voodoo ceremony in West Africa. Then we cruise through the drive-in burger joints and nighttime streets of a New Mexico town in home-customized lowrider cars, because their owners feel the cars give them power.
"MANA- beyond belief" reveals the countless ways belief plays a role-sometimes hilariously, sometimes in deadly earnest-in all these activities.
Strange Attractions, Inc., in partnership with coproducers based in France, Germany and the Netherlands, presents "MANA-beyond belief," an unusual feature directed and written by Peter Friedman and Roger Manley.
About the production
"How do you film belief? How do you get at something which happens only inside the mind, and make it visible so viewers don't just have it explained to the them, but can actually start to see it? That was far and away our biggest challenge," says Roger Manley, co-director with Peter Friedman of Strange Attractions' new motion picture, "MANA-beyond belief."
"We decided early-on to avoid voice-over narration and other standard techniques for carrying the viewer along-so we had set ourselves a huge hurdle even before we began facing all the logistics of getting our crews and heaps of High Def gear into some very remote parts of the world."
"We knew from the outset that physical objects were our way into the subject," says Friedman, "since you can't see or film people believing in something, like the importance of their forebears. But when you show them responding to particular objects, their beliefs begin to be revealed."
"That's where the old Polynesian notion of mana provided the key," says Manley. "They realized long ago that the meaning and power of things is based on what we know or believe about them. An old weapon that had killed a lot of enemies had much more mana than a new weapon. But actually that's the way people think about all kinds of things."
To demonstrate the basic concept of mana, Friedman holds up an empty glass. "When you first see this, it just looks like an ordinary glass. But if I told you it was the last thing Princess Diana touched before her fatal car crash it would suddenly seem different, wouldn't it? It would suddenly seem precious, and you'd behave differently toward it.
"That difference is the mana you would feel coming from it, and the way you'd respond to it would start to reveal your belief in it . . . or even your disbelief. Mana is not only what makes saints' bones seem holy, but also largely what makes things like designer shoes so desirable."
"So," Manley says, "we thought if we could get close enough to significant power objects, even without explaining everything, the audience could catch a glimpse of others' beliefs, whether or not they share them. But in the end, the audience might start seeing how they do this, too, in other ways.
"It's a really different approach than most docs take-it means trusting the audience to put things together for themselves. It asks them to go along with us but keep their own eyes and minds open. Then they can share in the same delight and amazing sense of discovery we ourselves felt."
"For example," adds Manley, "in the film people experience what it actually feels like, to enter a cathedral in Torino, Italy, to feel the hush fall over the crowd, to let your eyes get adjusted to the dark and then suddenly begin to make out a faint image of a man on an ancient piece of cloth suspended above the altar.
"We didn't want viewers to be seeing a scene about the Shroud of Turin, we want them to really see the thing itself and feel something real about it."
"By now it's widely known that scientific tests were conducted on the Shroud and that researchers doubt it is really old enough to be the grave cloth of Jesus, and so on. In fact even the Catholic Church itself no longer claims it's absolutely authentic, but only that it 'reminds the believers of Jesus.'
"But the Church also says that by now this piece of cloth has been 'sanctified by the belief of the believers themselves.' In other words, it means something real now because so many people believe it has meaning. And that's what we want to show."
"We also wanted to go beyond religion to see belief in other kinds of activities too," says Manley. "So another place we take the audience is onto the trading floor of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange. We get in among the traders as they scream and jostle, and start to see how emotions and feelings sweep over them as information pours in."
"Yes," says Friedman, "things like stocks and futures and the relative values of international currencies shift whenever enough people start believing their value is going to go up or down . . . which means that their belief is itself one of the main things affecting the directions the market moves.
"But "MANA-beyond belief" isn't a nonstop mental workout," he adds. "Sure, we try to prompt viewers to question some of their most basic assumptions-but everyone will certainly enjoy himself at the same time. This movie is fun to watch. Above all it's a great visual experience. So people can get as deep into it or take it however lightly they want to.
"For many it's a chance to relax, listen to the ambient sounds and music of some strikingly unusual real-life situations and to enjoy being whisked around the world to see some gorgeous images of places and people they may never get to see on their own. Just getting to go behind the scenes and mingle with insiders in a number of fascinating cultures is enough to make seeing the movie a great experience."
"And that's perfectly fine too," says Manley. "We're dealing with a serious topic-after all mana is, in a sense, 'what makes matter matter'-but the movie doesn't really take itself so seriously. We're all only human, and humor is one of the ways people everywhere deal with the serious aspects of life."
"At the same time," says Friedman, "we were extremely careful to be respectful of the indigenous societies we encountered. Since we wanted to capture the point of view of people who believe in the objects we show, we not only needed their cooperation but their involvement in the project with us.
"We hired local guides and translators everywhere we went, sought local people again later on to help us with the editing and translating-since we filmed in sixteen different languages- and then we showed the edited sequences to the participants to ensure accuracy."
The ideas for "MANA-beyond belief" emerged from both codirectors. Several of Peter Friedman's award-winning earlier films-including "Silverlake Life," and "Death by Design"-deal with complex and serious subjects like illness and death, and he'd begun to feel that the next subject he needed to examine was belief: how we make sense of it all.
Meanwhile Roger Manley's back-ground as a folklorist, photographer, screenwriter and museum curator had drawn his own attention to how people all over the world interact with physical objects. In books like The End is Near! and Signs and Wonders he shows how people from all walks of life make objects to express their emotions.
After corresponding with each other for several years, Friedman and Manley decided to combine their different strengths to tackle what they both understood was going to be a mammoth task.
"From the outset we knew we'd be working on this project for a fairly long time," says Friedman.
"And we also knew that meant the idea had to be big enough to be worth thinking about and worth struggling with, and one we wouldn't be able to exhaust quickly or get bored with over the long run."
"Mana certainly turned out to be big enough," Manley says, "because everyone on earth incorporates it into their thinking at some level, whether they are aware of it or not.
"The average Western urbanite may not share in the Burmese belief that a single hair from the head of Buddha can stop a giant boulder from falling off a cliff, but then he or she may still believe that there is something special in having a pipe that belonged to their grandfather, or that their nation's flag is something more than just an ordinary piece of cloth.
"Even people who may consider themselves pretty sophisticated still tell friends they ran into a celebrity in a restaurant. And all these are great examples of mana-the belief in the special power of certain people, places and things-and they all reveal belief in day to day situations."
"We envisioned the scenes in our movie as a kind of ensemble casting," says Friedman. "We scouted locations in more than a dozen countries scattered around the world to find objects and situations which would show the subject from a variety of angles. We wanted both public spectacles and private moments. We wanted things everyone has heard of and things that are obscure and off-the-beaten-path.
"We wanted religious scenes, secular scenes, scenes from art and science and commerce. Things that take place in indigenous societies and in technologically-advanced societies, too.
"After a year of scouting and a year of shooting, we came back with 150 hours of high-definition footage. Then we spent a year in the editing room putting it all together." Friedman continues.
Manley says, "A few things had already begun to serve as mileposts. We knew, for instance, we wanted to start the film in New Zealand with Maori people, since their culture is the one which provided the best word-mana- for what we were exploring.
"And we knew where we wanted to end up, at a real-life time machine built by an amazing eccentric who we think is living proof that what you believe is what shapes who you are and where you go.
"We also knew," adds Friedman, "that we would keep only the scenes which were really unique. The Shroud of Turin is brought out of hiding only two or three times a century, and ours was the only crew allowed close access to film it the last time. It'll be a very long time before anyone else gets a chance to record it like that again.
"We were on hand for other unrepeatable events, too," says Manley, "like the 25th anniversary of the death of Elvis, the gathering of ancestor ghosts in Benin, the moon alignment in Burma, a Chinese funeral in Malaysia-so these scenes evolved into anchor points in the editing studio.
Peter Friedman points out, "Sometimes we relied on either sheer luck or divine intervention, depending on how you want to look at it. In Benin, where we went to film a voodoo ceremony, we first had to ask permission from the ancestors themselves. A goat was brought in, since they believe the ancestors can speak through the behaviors of animals.
"We all held our breath for several long moments before the goat finally signaled that the ceremony was approved, so we could go ahead with the shoot! If it had said no, we might have missed a terrific scene."
"In Malaysia," adds Roger Manley. "We found a traditional Chinese funeral just getting underway. Somewhat like the ancient Egyptians, traditional Chinese believe physical objects can accompany the dead into the afterlife.
"For this funeral, they were preparing to send a chauffeur-driven automobile made of paper, but life-sized, to their deceased grandmother. But they told us to come back the next day for the main event.
"When we returned, everyone welcomed us warmly and told us to film anything we wanted. We watched as they built a huge bonfire to send all kinds of things to their late grandmother-not only the paper car, but home entertainment equipment, money, household servants, mobile phones . . . and the scene we shot became a key moment in the film.
"Later we found out they'd believed we were bringers of good fortune: the previous evening they had copied down the license plate numbers from our car and used them to bet on the lottery-and they won! Of course we were lucky too, since we got an important sequence out of it."
Ultimately, "MANA-beyond belief" reminds us that beliefs play a role in everything we do. For every one of us believes in something, and we all build our worldview around such beliefs. In the end, what we believe determines who we are and what we become.
So you think, the movie promises, so shall it be.