Culture and art are the lifeblood of a democratic society that wants to renovate itself. Cinema is one art form that can inspire dialogue around crucial issues, but all too often it is censored in the countries where it would speak the loudest.
“The Band’s Visit,” a 2007 Israeli movie directed by Eran Kolirin about an Egyptian police orchestra in Israel, shows how Israeli and Arabs can interact not only as enemies but as human beings with common hopes and lives. Other movies also illustrate how different religious beliefs can find meeting points, as in the love of a Pakistani Muslim guy and an Irish Catholic woman in Ken Loach's “A Fond Kiss” (2004).
The News Year's Eve terrorist act in Alexandria against the Coptic community made clear that throughout the entire society it is necessary that the other be known as a human being before anything else. Cinema could be of great importance in supporting dialogue and stimulating public discussion along such lines.
One movie that could help move forward dialogue about sectarian tension is France’s “Of Gods and Men,” which won the Grand Prix at the 2010 Cannes Film Festival. The film shows how clashes start when the simplicity and coexistence of everyday life is interrupted, and argues that religion is never a justification for terrorism.
Based on a true event in Algeria in 1996, the film tells the story of a group of Trappist monks living in an abbey according to the ancient rule “Ora et Labora” (“Pray and Work”). They peacefully cohabit with the Muslim population and give them medical support. Day after day, a mutual respect and acceptance of their differences develops naturally as human beings loved by the same god.
However, the monks’ choices are severely tested when a group of terrorists starts persecuting the population. “We do not understand who is killing who,” says a Muslim man to the monks.
The indiscriminate killing that defines terrorism is the beginning of the end. On Christmas Eve a group of terrorists enter the monastery asking for medicines, but are refused. The monks, now in great danger, are forced to reflect on their future.
The film attempts to show that inter-religious dialogue is possible. The title is echoed in Psalm 82 of the Bible, which reads: “You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you; nevertheless, like men you shall die, and fall like any prince.” Man and gods can meet, know and respect each other.
The movie is a powerful statement against sectarian violence, and a compelling document of uncertain events. Paolo Branca, professor of Islamic Studies and of Arab Language and Literature at the Catholic University in Milan, said, “‘Of Gods and Man’ shows that the monks did not aim to convert their Muslim fellow citizens. On the contrary, it tackles the interfaith dialogue at a spiritual level without looking for the guilty.”
The film achieved great success in France, a secular country. As a monk writes, quoting Pascal: “men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from a religious conviction.”