Industrial Strength Spirituality

GUY DIXON
From Friday’s Globe and Mail
May 14, 2009 at 4:34 PM EDT

If rockers were the cultural gurus of the sixties, and techies like Steve Jobs and Nicholas Negroponte were the nineties’ watered-down version, documentary filmmakers may very well be emerging as the new prognosticators of where we’re headed.

Velcrow Ripper, the 45-year-old filmmaker with the part-punk, part-New Age pseudonym who lives on the Toronto Islands, is a clear example. His widely praised 2004 documentary Scared Sacred, a tour of war-devastated lands, was intended to be less a documentary and more of a meditative piece and call to arms.

And so is his second film in a planned trilogy – Fierce Light: When Spirit Meets Action. The new film takes Scared Sacred a step further by trying to get at the motivation for activism, examining how inward-focused spirituality can compel people to act outwardly, protesting against injustice and environmental degradation.

While filming Scared Sacred, Ripper found that what got people through horrific, wartime tragedy was a sense of personal meaning. “I witnessed it firsthand. Those who had a sense of meaning, whatever it was that gave them that, were the ones who survived. Those without any meaning were the ones who gave up,” he says.

“One of those sources of meaning was to take action, to actually try to stop what had happened to them from happening to anybody else. And I began to realize that the relationship between sources of meaning – a depth of understanding in one’s inner life – and taking action to create change is a really harmonious thing. The spirit and the action, they go together really well. In fact, they are meant to go together.”

This kind of talk has made Ripper the doc community’s version of a star. He gives lectures and conducts workshops to share his vision of spiritually conscious activism. Still, he rejects the idea that Fierce Light simply preaches to the choir. Instead, he deliberately lets emotions run high in the film to move audiences – even if not everyone agrees with its political assumptions.

“The theme of Fierce Light is about coming from the heart, as well as the head. It’s going to be unsatisfying if you go to it looking for facts, facts, facts. The reason I did that is because the film is about soul force … what I call almost an industrial-strength spirituality.”

Yet Fierce Light doesn’t aim for a kind of Chicken Soup for the Soul self-help airiness, nor does it reach transcendence like the 1979 documentary masterpiece Tibet: A Buddhist Trilogy. Fierce Light never strays from its street-level, activist core.

The filmmaker grew up on British Columbia’s idyllic Sunshine Coast and was raised in the Baha’i faith, which is based on the spiritual unity of all religions.

But even that was too confining for him. As a young punk rocker, he felt torn between spirituality and activism. At a hippie gathering, surrounded by kids called Feather and Crystal, someone gave him the nickname Velcrow, with an added “w” to lend a measure of mystique. (Velcrow’s friends know him as Crow.)

“As I went along, it became clear in many activist circles that you had to stay in the closet as a spiritual person,” Ripper says. “Spirituality wasn’t something that was part of the picture. There had been a real rejection of religion because of fundamentalism and the human-rights abuses done in the name of religion.”

However, something new is afoot, his films argue, and that’s what Ripper is becoming a figurehead for: It’s the interest, building for years now, among those on the left – an acknowledgment that spirituality seems to be at the heart of activism.

As Ripper adds: “My Facebook profile has a quote from Antony Hegarty, the New York musician, that says, ‘Hope and sincerity are the new punk.’”

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