Last night a friend and I caught Velcrow Ripper’s ScaredSacred (2004), which is being shown at the Pacific Cinematheque as part of its ‘Canada’s Top Ten‘ series. And both my friend and I found ourselves wondering why this film has been praised so much, at least in the Canadian media.

The film chronicles Ripper’s efforts to look at how fear has been turned into something more positive in various places around the world. He embarks on his journey in 1999, going to places like Bhopal, Hiroshima and Cambodia, where he basically addresses catastrophes that took place years, if not decades, ago. And then September 11 happens. And then, suddenly, Ripper is looking at present-day fears and how people deal with them in places like New York, Afghanistan and Israel. (In one scene, shortly after he leaves one of these hot spots, he finds himself in the London Underground and pondering how it’s almost “too easy” to travel in England; I wonder what he would say about the place now.)

Somewhere in all this, Ripper says he’s concerned that he not be just a “tourist”, but my friend felt Ripper did come across as a mere “tourist”. And early on, Ripper says he grew up Baha’i and no longer adheres to any particular religious system, but while he might have meant to impress us with his neutrality, I came away thinking his “spiritual smorgasbord” approach was pretty superficial. I suspect it would have been more interesting if, instead of skimming the surface of several religions, he had picked a single religious system — any system — and plumbed its depths. Instead, he tends to tell us he spent time with, say, Sufi mystics, and all we get out of it is pretty footage of whirling dervishes.

And just for the record, I was disappointed to see how little room there was for Christianity in his smorgasbord. Ripper finds Muslims in Afghanistan and Buddhists in Cambodia, of course, so when he comes to the United States he speaks to … a sensei? Granted, the sensei in question is an American of Caucasian descent, but still, come on. Ripper also seems a little too inspired by the sight of New Yorkers walking around in kitschy angel costumes. Thankfully, when, later on, he tracks down a couple of Palestinian parents who talk about the need to forgive the Israelis who killed their daughter, they happen to be Christian; but they are among the least pronounced of his interviewees.

Individual episodes are certainly quite interesting: a Cambodian who was forced to plant land mines for the Khmer Rouge when he was a boy, and who now tracks down and disarms thousands of such mines as an adult; a behind-the-scenes look at the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), both before and after the Americans invaded Afghanistan; and so on. And the film as a whole is diverting enough. But neither my friend (who has no particular religious belief himself, so his biases aren’t mine) nor I thought it was particularly accolade-worthy.

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