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PBS' 'Sacred': Vivid global portrait of people embracing spirituality in all its forms

A wedding ceremony in Kenya is shown on

A wedding ceremony in Kenya is shown on PBS' "Sacred."   Credit: PBS / WLIW / Faith Musembi

In explaining faith, 19th century philosopher William James wrote that "the gods we stand by are the gods we need and can use..." Simple enough idea, but best of luck producing a movie based on it. Veteran filmmaker Thomas Lennon, in fact, has done just that.

"Sacred," which will air Monday (WNET/13 at 9 p.m.) after a two-year sojourn through various independent film festivals, was conceived and directed by Lennon but is based on the contributions of dozens of filmmakers from around the world. Each has provided a vivid glimpse of people at different stages of life — birth, adolescence, marriage, or nearing death — as they embrace spirituality. Global in scope, intimate in scale, "Sacred" is that James' quote in technicolor. Mostly, though, it's just a spellbinding and deeply moving exploration of our common humanity.    

New York-based Lennon, 68, has had experience covering the world before. A distinguished documentary film producer, he won an Oscar with Ruby Yang for 2006's "The Blood of Yingzhou District," about the impact of AIDS on orphans in China, which launched a vast AIDS prevention campaign in that country. Lennon has been nominated for an Oscar three other times.

I spoke recently with him about "Sacred." This is an edited version of our conversation:

I understand you orchestrated some 40 filmmakers around the world to collect footage. How did that work exactly?

There has been a huge democratization of film in the last five, 10 years, all over the world, and all you have to do is buy a camera for $2,000 or less that makes really beautiful images. The barrier of entry has dropped so people are producing media that's good, really good. So my thought was let's hire real filmmakers — people who are making a living doing this, but have them all over the world and give them a clear set of parameters and be clear enough in what we're doing so that the various pieces will fit together. It was a terrifying leap, but about an exciting leap.

The stories are bound loosely by religious ceremony. But there must have been a specific idea that brings all this together. What was that?

I had a few simple guidelines and a beautiful quote from [William] James — "the gods we stand by..." He was a deeply religious man but interested in the way in which human beings make use of religion, to help provide the assistance they need. I talked that through with every filmmaker..."I want you to be looking for the very practical human ways in which that act of faith is helping that person." That was the throughline, if you will.

 As a viewer, you're given no guidance — or information — about what you're seeing, and no narrator either. The reason for that?

My field, for very good reason, has [already] devoted an enormous amount of energy into covering faith -- the social and political consequences of faith, including in some instances the extraordinary damage [it has caused]. I don't fault that coverage and it's essential, but it also feels insufficient. But what about faith as an experience . . . to take it seriously as human experience? . . .[A narrator] would be dictating and that takes away the obligation of the viewer to feel and sit through what he or she is seeing, hearing. We really wanted to just immerse, and hopefully this is an immersive experience.

Forty filmmakers and all those countries, yet some huge countries seem not to have made the cut, China, in particular. Does that mean there's an absence of ceremony there?

It's very hard to film religious scenes in China, unbelievably hard. The Chinese [authorities] are very afraid of further institutionalizing the power of faith, which is why they have been so repressive. [Plus] do you know how many faiths there are in this world? I knew right from the start there would be faiths not included [in "Sacred"]. I just decided my first priority was to make a film that was thematically, emotionally and dramatically coherent. I wasn't going to play the game of checking off the boxes.

Music is important in all of your films, but it seems especially vital here. True?

I was lucky to have a really gifted collaborator, Edward Bilous [founder of Juilliard's Center for Innovation in the Arts] and we decided early on not to play a regional game with the music — the scene with the little [Muslim] boy who had the dream of God had Western-sounding instrumentals [while] the scene [with a woman] in Connecticut used Indian and Pakistani instrumentals. We didn't want to ghettoize religious experience with the music.

Your work has literally changed the world. Will there by any follow-up to "The Blood of Yingzhou?"

Sadly, the repression of the press in China has only gotten greater. I had an extraordinary collaborator, Ruby Yang, and it was through her presence there that made it possible to do those films in China. She finally found it impossible to [work] there and is now living in Hong Kong.

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