Sarah Feinbloom interviewed by Julie Byrne
Sarah Feinbloom’s 2002 film What Do You Believe? was centered on the religious lives of six teenagers in the United States, and was voted “One of Ten Best Videos for Young Adults in 2003” by the American Library Association. Seventeen years later she was prompted to do a follow up film, revisiting the same six people, now in their 30s, and asking about their journeys. The result is the 2019 film, What Do You Believe Now?
In the following interview, Julie Byrne, Hartman Chair in Catholic Studies at Hofstra University, talks with Feinbloom about the processes of returning to previous subject matter and what transpires during that time in the lives of informants, filmmakers, and the culture at large. We learn why it’s more difficult to interview 30-year-olds than teenagers, the difficulties of “playing god” in the editing room, and why religion is always more complicated than just a set of “beliefs.”
Julie Byrne: What made you want to revisit What Do You Believe? (2002) seventeen years later, to make What Do You Believe Now? (2019). Was that always the plan?
Sarah Feinbloom: No, it wasn’t the plan to do a follow-up at all. Like most filmmakers I was exhausted after making the first film. While I was finishing the original film about six teenagers in 2001, 9/11 happened. A lot of educators and interfaith groups reached out to get my film because it offered a way to talk about religious pluralism, stereotyping, and discrimination in America. I spent the next several years leading interfaith workshops nationally and distributing the documentary to over 2,000 schools and organizations. One of the highlights of that time was showing the film at the American Academy of Religion in 2003. Then I moved on to other documentary projects, and as far as I was concerned I was finished.
However, for some reason, I kept lugging around the original footage, even though I moved a bunch and thought about throwing it out. I figured someday I would find the six subjects and give them the raw footage, and they would get a kick out of seeing themselves as teens. Then one day in 2017 the Lakota teen, Julius Not Afraid who is now in his 30s contacted me on Facebook. I was really surprised since I hadn’t spoken to him since 2003. He wrote that he wanted me to come back to film his life again, and share what had happened to him and his community in the ensuing years. He was especially worried about the rise of teen suicide on the Pine Ridge Reservation. I started feeling obligated to respond in some way since he asked me to. With a lot of trepidation, I began talking with friends and family about the idea of a follow-up. Everybody thought it would be so interesting, so I decided to give it a whirl. I had no idea how difficult it would end up being. After some detective work and with the power of Facebook, I was able to find the other five subjects. It was really emotional for me to reconnect with them and it was also really hard for me to convince them to be filmed again and agree to be in a follow-up film. I also had a huge task of going back through all the old footage, over 120 hours to use with the new footage to try to create something that actually flowed together.
JB: To me this film is such a rich and revelatory way to introduce contemporary trends in U.S. religion, from religious pluralism to “the rise of the ‘nones’” to the millennial experience of America. How did you choose whom to include in these films about six such diverse people?
SF: Well, I wasn’t as aware of the rise of the “nones” in 1999, when I began part one of this project. I was more focused on lifting up the diversity of religious and spiritual expression in the US. I was a high school teacher back then and I couldn’t find any materials that really addressed the role of religion and spirituality cross culturally in teens’ lives. I wanted to share perspectives in the film that were more inclusive. That’s why I chose to focus on Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Lakota, Jewish, and Pagan teens. I actually interviewed over 200 teenagers from so many backgrounds before finding the ideal final six. They were all dealing with universal and personal dilemmas related to their religion and spirituality, as well as the challenges of being teenagers—a time of tremendous soul searching. It was hard to leave all the other traditions out, and I could have gone in so many directions. But that would have been a 40-hour film! Perhaps because I was interested in young people who were questioning more, struggling more, I found a cohort of young people that reflect some of these trends we now see with millennials—questioning, struggling, falling away, reinterpreting, rejecting organized religion, inventing new hybrids.
JB: Your title uses the word “believe,” but in the first film, and even more so in the second film, your subjects’ experiences are far more entangled with life than the word “believe” can encompass. How did you make decisions with asking about “God,” “belief,” and “religion” so as to elicit how complex their personal and social approaches to “religion” are?
SF: I was interested in how beliefs play out in everyday life, and how our ideals bump up against reality. My sense is that we are constantly redefining our beliefs and interpretations as our lives unfold. I’ve always been interested in how what we believe is affected by suffering or loss, sexuality, religious discrimination, and by all the contradictory ideas we are exposed to in a pluralistic society. Maybe if you are making a film about a priest or imam their daily life is more focused on activities that we might consider sacred. That is very different from making a film about regular people. Their lives become like a living laboratory where they test out all these concepts like “God,” “belief,” and “religion” in the mundane world.
To your second question, I tried to really ask a broad range of questions and ask all of them the same ones. I tried to draw questions from all the different faith traditions, as well as from philosophy, from agnosticism and atheism, and synthesize them. So, I wasn’t just framing everything from a Judeo-Christian lens, i.e. about a monotheistic god, or sin for example, but I made sure to ask them each about concepts that came from all these traditions. The complexity you saw in the film I think you will find with anyone, if you ask them enough questions, most people end up being pretty interesting. My hope is the film serves as an invitation to students and communities to start asking each other deeper questions, so we can better appreciate and understand each other.
JB: You are the filmmaker, but you don’t appear in the film at all. What was your decision-making process about that?
SF: Well, I really wanted viewers to hear from these 6 people in an unmediated way. I don’t think my story or my commentary or narration is necessary, and I think it would have gotten in the way. I preferred that they narrate their own stories and I wanted it to feel like viewers are privy to their internal dialogue, their soul searching and spiritual ruminations. Of course, I was there, but I wasn’t really interested in me as a character. People often ask me what I believe, but that’s super complicated!
JB: How would you say “you” are still “in the film,” in script, cinematography, editing and more? I’d love to hear more about key decisions as a documentarian along the way.
SF: I often joke that being a director, producer, and editor is kind of like playing god! You make so many decisions, especially in the edit room, like what to leave in, what to leave out, how to add emotion by music choices, how to add drama. You can easily take people out of context and manipulate their stories. There are tons of ethical decisions you must make and you have so much power that it can be quite daunting. You have to have a strong internal moral compass. So, these decisions of who to film, what to ask them, what to include and not to include, you make constantly. And I’m far from perfect and aware I have biases. You also make a lot of decisions based on your budget, but viewers don’t care why you did or didn’t do something—they are just responding to what’s there in the final film. I do think my values show up in the film. I’m the one choosing to put all these people together and to ask them these complicated questions. I’m the one spotlighting what they have to say. I’m the one developing relationships with them and their families. They are talking to me, but I’m trying to be more of conduit, rather than telling them what to say.
JB: One thing that is so striking in watching the film is the “before and after” device. For one thing, it makes it a stand-alone film—you don’t need to have seen the first one. Much more importantly, I found it so very moving. You go from the high school girl who’s pagan to the woman who is sick in a hospital, and it’s so intimate and powerful, what she shared with us. And then the Native teenager who vows not to get involved with alcohol, but when he’s grown he says he has indeed struggled with alcohol abuse. Can you say more about this device? Whose “before and after” story surprised or affected you the most?
SF: I really love before and after stories because they elicit so much emotion. Time lapses and you witness transformations, you feel change is possible, you feel nostalgic, you feel disappointed, you feel resolution. Sometimes things get harder as we age, but we also deepen and become wiser. It was a big jump to follow up 17 years later so there are a lot of surprises. I had to go back to the earlier footage and see what the before and after possibilities could be for each one. Were they dogmatic back then, and now unsure? Did they contradict something about their beliefs? Did they say something prescient? The contrast with the old and new footage helped a lot to emphasize these before and after transformations.
Revisiting them, and traveling around to see them in their adult lives was quite special. I was so happy to be with all of them again, and of course I was sad to find out for some of them life had been pretty hard. I cried with them, and I cheered them on, and I felt really proud of them. We all decided we need to do another follow-up in 10 years. I think that would be amazing because it would end up being not just before and after, but another stage in their ongoing, unfolding lives. I hope that will be possible.
JB: I read that not all the participants of the first film were immediately sold on participating in the second. How did you persuade all of them to come on board? How did it go when you all gathered to debut the film in early 2020, right before the pandemic shutdowns?
SF: That’s true. They had many secrets and disappointments they were reluctant to share, so I had to push really hard, because I just couldn’t leave any of their stories out. Being filmed is a pretty vulnerable experience. When you are a teen you are a little more naive and feel special that a filmmaker wants to follow you around. When you are in your 30s you are often more skeptical and more private about your life and the ups and downs you have experienced. So, there was definitely some begging and gentle cajoling. There were also a lot of up front conversations about what to film and what was ok and not ok to share. I always do that with people I film, but in this case it was meeting them again as adults and renegotiating things as much as possible so they would be comfortable.
Our world premiere was in October of 2019 at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It was a pretty transcendent experience, having them all there and showing them the film for the first time with a big audience. They really understood from an adult perspective what the film was about and why it matters now at this time in the U.S. They understood how the film could serve others in their journeys, and that they were part of presenting more diverse voices in a country where there is a lot of division and misunderstanding. They were magnificent during the Q&A. I wish more people could have a chance to talk with all of them. We want to take the film on the road and do interfaith conversations, but finding funding for that is on pause right now with Covid. We hope there will be some Zoom opportunities. We hope to find other ways to get the film out there and that educators and interfaith groups will find the follow-up helpful to the work they do.
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Sarah Feinbloom is an award-winning director, producer, editor and founder of GOOD DOCS – an educational documentary distribution company. Her 2002 documentary, What Do You Believe? aired on PBS and was voted “One of Ten Best Videos for Young Adults in 2003” by the American Library Association and has shown at over 2000 schools and colleges in the U.S. and internationally. Her latest project, What Do You Believe Now? – The Spiritual Journeys of American Millennials (2019) premiered at the 42nd Mill Valley Film Festival. Feinbloom has also created and led workshops on interfaith dialogue and religious diversity. Her other films include Earth Water Woman (2013) which premiered at the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival, Many Loves, One Heart (2017) which premiered at Frameline Film Festival and Daughters and Sons Preventing Child-Trafficking in the Golden Triangle (2005) which premiered at the Boston International Film Festival.
Julie Byrne holds the Monsignor Thomas J. Hartman Chair in Catholic Studies and is Professor of Religion and Chair of the Department of Religion at Hofstra University in Long Island, New York. In 2018 she was awarded a grant by the Public Scholars program of the National Endowment for the Humanities for work on her third book, on memory of 9/11 and tristate suburban Catholicism. Her second book, The Other Catholics: Remaking America’s Largest Religion, and first book, O God of Players: The Story of the Immaculata Mighty Macs, were published by Columbia University Press in 2016 and 2003, respectively. Byrne writes and teaches widely on subjects related to US religion and culture.