The Best Monastic Documentaries: Eastern Edition

A few months ago, I published a post entitled “The Best Monastic Documentaries.” It was quickly pointed out to me that, although I had covered several good features, they were all about Western monks. So I decided that, once I had the time, I would assemble a review of the best documentaries covering Eastern Monasticism. That time has finally arrived! So buckle up, get out your chotki, and watch some of these films.

60 Minutes Goes to Mount Athos

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Simonopetra Monastery, Mount Athos, one of the monasteries profiled by 60 Minutes. (Source)

In 2011, viewers who tuned into the Christmas episode of CBS’s popular weekly news-documentary series, 60 Minutes, were greeted with an extraordinarily rare treat. For the first time in thirty years, the monks of Mount Athos had opened up their peninsula to a television crew. I remember when it premiered; this was one of my earliest encounters with the monastic tradition of the East. Bob Simon layers on the journalistic smarm, clearly stunned by and slightly distasteful at the various sacrifices and remnants of Medieval life on the Holy Mountain. Nevertheless, the holy simplicity of the monks that he interviews nevertheless shines through. I’m particularly impressed with the testimony to perpetual prayer – the prayer of the heart – given in this film. And luckily enough for us, both Part 1 and Part 2 can both be found online.

One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery

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The sound of the wooden doaca awakens the monks from their sleep and calls them to prayer. (Source)

This quiet, reverent film covers the daily routine of a monastery in Georgia. There is no dialogue and no plot, per se. We don’t follow the actions of any single monk. But the viewer does gain an insight into the feeling of the monastic rhythm in this little, faraway community of Abkhazia. Viewers who have seen Into Great Silence will recognize a very similar style in this film. My only criticism is that there’s rather too much focus on the work of the monks, and not enough on their prayer. Still, those moments of prayer we do see are also noteworthy for clearly showing the larger lay community that depends upon the monastery for spiritual sustenance. This short film is thus perhaps the most poetic production on our list.

The Brethren

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They’re pretty hard core. (Source)

Monks have always sought “the desert,” though sometimes that desert takes the form of tundra. The monks of Trifonov Pechengsky monastery, Kolsky Peninsula, Russia, must be some of the northernmost monastics on earth. This intimate portrait of the community  gives insight not only into the externals of ascetic life at the edge of the world, but also the reasons why men become and remain monks. It also shows, in a more explicit way than One Day in the Life of a Men’s Monastery, that the monks play an important role in their small town’s life and history.

“Hermits of Our Times – Orthodox Christian Monasticism (Hesychasm)”

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Monastic wisdom. (Source)

To be fair, this isn’t really a documentary. It seems to be footage from a Romanian Orthodox news service taken in the late 1990’s. But it does shine a helpful spotlight on modern anchorites (then) living in the Romanian forest. Anchorites are not monks per se; at least, they are not cenobites, living in cells within a larger community. They are hermits who may once have been attached to a community but now seek God in solitude. I always find myself deeply impressed by the simplicity and manifest wisdom of these holy men whenever I return to this clip. I am reminded of the sayings of the Optina Elders, the Desert Fathers, or even my good St. Philip Neri.

“The Motorbike Rider Who Became a Monk”

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The basics of monastic life, as communicated by a monk in Israel. (Source)

Again, I’m not sure this technically counts as a documentary. But it’s a good interview with a Cypriot who became a monk in Israel, at St. Gerasimos Monastery. One of the great strengths of this film, besides relating a vocation story, is the emphasis it places on the role of the Elder or Spiritual Father. For the Eastern Orthodox, and especially for monks, there is a spiritual lineage passed on from one old monk to younger ones (or to those in the world). In the West, we have mostly lost the sense of Spiritual Fatherhood by dividing its roles between the confessor and the spiritual director, neither of which carries the same weight as the Spiritual Father. But this short and helpful film is a good reminder of what still persists in the monastic tradition.

Behind the Monastery Walls

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Inside a Romanian monastery. (Source)

This 2011 documentary looks at the personal stories of various monks and nuns in Romania. It’s an artfully made piece, with a very good choral track throughout. But I admire its spiritual insights more than its aesthetic notes. Although the filmmaker does not seem to take a definitively Christian standpoint, she allows the monastics to speak for themselves. They provide a remarkable testimony to the strength of Orthodox traditions in the wake of Communism. We see not only the monks and nuns themselves, but  also the devotional practices of ordinary believers who come to the monasteries. There are, for instance, many prostrations before icons. I also enjoyed the film for my own personal reasons. Romanian monasticism will always hold a special place in my heart, as it was a trip to a Transylvanian monastery that started my conversion, about seven years ago.

I’m sure there are other examples one could point to, but for now, these are some good places to start. They cover a wide range of Orthodox practices and values, all refracted through the lens of its monastic tradition.

 

 

A Sophianic Documentary

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The Puffins of Little Skellig, featured in the show. (Source)

Recently, I had the good fortune of watching Ireland’s Wild Coast, a PBS piece. I must recommend it in the highest possible terms. You can watch the trailer here. From PBS’s description:

Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson takes viewers on an authored odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast – the place he chooses to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films.

The show goes far beyond what we’re used to in the usual nature documentaries. Stafford-Johnson’s skill with the camera is peerless. Many of his shots are photographic gems in their own right. His birds are a particular delight to watch. He captures them as they move in stillnessKestrel, Eagle, Swan. Brought together with beautiful music and sensitive narration over the course of two hours, the gorgeous shots elevate each other to the level of true documentary art.

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Irish Swans, photo by Colin Stafford-Johnson. (Source)

Stafford-Johnson couldn’t be more different than, say, David Attenboroughdistant, officious, illustrative, objective, professorial. In a word, British.

Instead, he has given us a distinctly Irish documentary. Every scene is infused with an Irish sensibility. Gone is the slightly stuffy, very British narration conveying little more than scientific data about the life cycle and behavior of various animals; gone the humanitarian appeals for conservation or legislative action on climate change; gone, too, the very American emphasis on spectacle and action. While there’s some information about the creatures that inhabit the west coast of Ireland and the threats they face, it comes across in a very different way. British and American nature shows are prose, and sometimes clunky, technical prose at that. Ireland’s Wild Coast is pure poetry. Or even—dare I say it—a prayer.

At every turn, we can sense Stafford-Johnson’s affection for and intimacy with his subject. For example, Stafford-Johnson rather touchingly says that a stag in rut “has only one thing on his mind: fatherhood.” He admires the tenacity of the humble lamprey; “Any creature that has been around for that long has got life sorted.” He has a wonderful tendency to humanize the animals he films. Surrounded by humpback whales at rest after feeding, he says, “I like to think that other animals can be happy.” In some sense, that’s the whole point of Ireland’s Wild Coast. To show us the joy of the natural world, and help us rekindle our wonder in it.

Likewise, Stafford-Johnson’s environmental concerns are usually framed by a winsome sense of home. These animals are Ireland; they belong to the land and sea; they form an integral part of his home, and must be preserved as such. The Irish sense of place, an obsession that has formed the country’s art, literature, and politics for centuries, colors Stafford-Johnson’s narration in more ways than one. For this film is not just a nature documentary. At the Skelligs, at Great Blasket, at Corcomroe, and in his traditional rowboat, Stafford-Johnson reflects on the Irish people in their history and culture. He wistfully wonders what kind of life the men who built the beehive huts of Skellig Michael might have led. He contemplates the dissolution of the monasteries. And he tells us a few old Irish legends along the way.

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Red Deer Stag, by Colin Stafford-Johnson. Featured in the film. (Source).

The viewer is led to contemplate nature and history through a poetic lens. We become fellow-travelers with Stafford-Johnson as he winds his way up the West Coast on a watery pilgrimage. Any student of Sophiology will recognize in Ireland’s Wild Coast a perfect example of truly Sophianic art. As Michael Martin writes at the beginning of his essential text, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Return to a Poetic Metaphysics:

For sophiology, especially as articulated from the 17th century onward, asks us to attend to the grace of God, his presence, in Creation: a presence which, despite the world’s fallenness, can only be described (in the words of Genesis) as “good.” (3)

That’s precisely the message that Stafford-Johnson most powerfully communicates. Not that the earth is in danger; not that wild animals live interesting and impressive lives; not even that Ireland has a unique and valuable ecosystem on its west coast. Nothing so pragmatic as that. Rather, we are left with the powerful sense of the goodness of creation. We are led to delight in it.

In watching the film—in rewatching it—in writing this piece—I am reminded not only of the lessons of latter-day sophiologists, but of that sophiologist malgré lui, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Specifically, the words of his great sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

No words so perfectly describe the Kestrel of Corcomroe as it hovers, hesitates, and then glides down with Pentecostal grace upon its unsuspecting prey.

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The Kestrel, shot by Colin Stafford-Johnson. It is impossible to understand how beautiful this bird is without seeing it in motion. (Source).