Religion Today Film Festival: the journey into differences was created 23 years ago

Religion Today Film Festival: the journey into differences was created 23 years ago

It was 1997. The dominant discourse pushed towards a clash of civilizations. The narrative still exists today, but the dialogue initiatives are much stronger. Even in cinema the phrase “God is dead, even on the screen” was often heard. We were coming out of two decades of superficial, noisy cultural models. The pursuit of silence, meditation, mindfulness were still for a few.

I was busy directing documentaries, often with a spiritual theme, and I lacked a space for discussion and distribution channels. I was on the board of the IAMHIST (International Association For Media And History) along with some of the most important scholars in the world. And I was also on the board of the then-called City of Trento Mountain Festival. Watching the films in the selection committee, I realized that while many were talking about the mountains on the surface, they actually implied a strong spiritual search. The ascent called for a search for God.

From thought to action: the creation of Religion Today

Alberto and I had chosen to live in Trentino, giving up on the African dream. However, we wanted to make our contribution to warm up the dialogue narrative and make it a little more concrete. The definitive spark was triggered by a phase of Don Tonino Bello, when he came back from Ethiopia: “Come on guys! We have to move from the culture of indifference to the conviviality of differences!”

So why not found the world’s first festival of cinema and inter-religious dialogue?

The first to be involved in the great journey were the IAMHIST scholars: the producer and historian of the first series of historical documentaries of the BBC Jerome Kuhel, the sociologist of cinema Pierre Sorlin, Karsten Fledelius and Dan Leab. And the Italians: Professor Andrea Zanotti, Father Contardo Zeni, Lucio Dalla, Sergio Zavoli and many others.

From the left: Andrea Zanotti with Fr Nazareno Taddei, Jerry Kuehl, Mika Kovler and Lia Beltrami

The first editions

Religion Today Film Festival was born as a travelling festival, almost a pilgrimage to the city and symbolic places. For the first three years, the offices were in Trento, Bologna and Ravenna. It was not easy to create a loyal audience and get the idea across. A first newspaper article published more or less said: “There will never be a second edition” …

Some of the strongest images of those early years are the two screenings in Ravenna at St Apollinare in Classe and at St Apollinare Nuovo. The first religious-themed black and white films were screened, right below the most beautiful mosaics in the world, which after all were already dynamic narratives. The films were accompanied by live music with the original scores.

Screenings in Ravenna, St Apollinare

The Coexistence Lab

In parallel to the value of the films and the screenings, the Coexistence Lab took place. Directors from all over the world, and from areas in conflict, came to the festival and lived for a week in a convent to learn to dialogue. A director is an opinion multiplier, so raising awareness means raising awareness for thousands of people. The two most interesting films in the religious and spiritual fields were the Iranian and the Israeli one. The first workshops therefore saw great directors from Iran and Israel living together with friars or monks. Wonderful spaces for discussion were created, and unforgettable moments of prayer; such as sharing Shabbat dinners and nights of crying for Imam Hussein.

Cinema was a vehicle for dialogue, generating change to build bridges.

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