Activist/filmmaker Velcrow Ripper’s latest documentary, Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action begins as a sort of tribute to his slain friend and colleague Brad Will, who was shot and killed while the two of them were documenting a paramilitary crackdown on protesters in Mexico. Ripper, the narrator of the film, becomes introspective in the wake of what happened to his friend, and confronted with his own mortality, asks questions about the nature of what it is he is doing as a documentarian and activist.
Thus the crux of the film comes into focus. Fierce Light, co-produced by the NFB in association with Big Picture Media and distributed in Canada through Seville Pictures and in the US through Lorber HT Digital, is an exploration of the spiritual dimensions of non-violent social and political activism. Although much of the film focuses on North America and the United States particularly, the broad-ranging themes – such as the legacy of figures like Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. – reach all over the world from South Africa to India to Vietnam. The film also includes interviews with the more prominent spiritual figures involved in the major activist struggles of the past century, particularly Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Civil Rights activist-turned-congressman John Lewis.
Some of the iconic social and political struggles of the last 50 years are discussed, with a focus on what Ripper sees as the underlying spiritual motivation behind the activism. Ripper seems to argue that the spirituality involved, whether it is based in Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholicism, or Baptist Christianity, is fundamentally non-dogmatic and essentially non-denominational – a view much in line with Ripper’s confessed Baha’i roots.
The film also suggests that all these causes, from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, to the Civil Rights movement in Alabama, to the struggle for the rights of the “untouchables” caste in India, and even the tree-sitting campaigns in the redwood forests of the United States, are truly something of a united cause after all: the campaign for a better world.
There are glaring omissions, however, in the movements that the film showcases, particularly the respective brands of activism within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where there are a plethora of religious dimensions involved, although perhaps not strictly spiritual in the way that Ripper may define it. Although the conflict, as we’re exposed to it in the media, is predominantly violent, non-violent movements within both parties do exist, if small in size and exposure. Conversely, violent wings of both the Civil Rights and anti-apartheid movements did exist as well, but in Ripper’s film, they are not even acknowledged in passing.
At the same time, Ripper does not completely avoid the subject of violent conflict in his film, particularly by using the backdrop of the Vietnam War as part of his exposé of Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh’s walking meditations – although the film emphasizes Hanh’s struggle for peace and reconciliation ever since that brutal war.
To bookend his film, Ripper uses the South Central Farm protest (subject of 2008′s The Garden) as a kind of metaphor for how the “better world” campaign is doing, and even though the film ends with the eviction of the South Central Farmers from their urban “garden of Eden,” which is then bulldozed, the scene is later followed by a caption stating that the farmers planted a new one on a large plot outside just outside LA. This all seems to say that, while “the power of guns and money” – in the words of one feminist leader included in the film – won out, the audacity of the human spirit and what Gandhi called “soul power” still perseveres and can triumph.
The message of Fierce Light then comes full circle, as it’s suggested that the better world being pursued by activists such as Ripper is already here, if only manifested in the human heart.