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A Poetic Ascent

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Issue: 65 Section: Arts JAPAN Topics: film

October 10, 2009

A Poetic Ascent

Shugendo Now is a film for the cynic

by Meaghan Thurston

[cc 2.0] Photo: Helen Rickard

TIDNISH, NS—I’ll be honest that from the tag-line, “Everywhere you go, you can find a holy mountain,” I was worried Shugendo Now might be yet another addition to the never dying trend of self-help theory for the serenity seeking urbanite. Instead, this documentary film by Montreal-based Jean-Marc Abela and Mark Patrick Maguire is both exotic and relevant. It tells the stories of several unlikely eco-pilgrims: a night club owner, a construction company manager, a disheartened office worker and a “rogue-monk”, Kosho, who takes on a landfill for industrial waste.

Are mountain austerities and city life absolutely separate things? [cc 2.0] Photo: Christopher Chan

Maguire's ethnographic fieldwork in Japan in the summers of 2002 and 2003 inspired the film. But, even if you are not a folk religions enthusiast, I think you will be intrigued by the obscure Japanese folk religion Shugendo, and the age-old tradition of mountain devotion of the yamabushi mountain monks. Filmed in 2007 the film documents the annual July 7 pilgrimage of the yamabushi and their urban followers in the Omine Mountains. Not to be confined to comparative religion classes, nor, thankfully, in spite of the risk, sloshing around in a swamp of spiritualist clichés, the film is a call to a new kind of personal and community empowerment.

“As with food issues,” Abela reflected over a bowl of fruit in August in Montreal when we met to talk about Shugendo Now, “it is so hard to consume in a responsible way. Once you accept these contradictions you can move on.”

No stranger to food issue activism, Abela has made videos for Montreal’s Santropol Roulant rooftop garden project and is a believer in the practice of permaculture. Like the film's rogue monk protagonist, Abela, a self-proclaimed coureur des bois archetype (according to Wikipedia an individual who engaged in the fur trade without permission from French authorities) is critical of lifestyles that are not in tune with the environment: “In Canada, I see people who live in the country but who live high-energy lifestyles. There’s a disconnect there. And with activists, I’ve seen people burn out.”

So, why is a film like this important for Canadians to see? “Going to nature is a universal thing” says Abela. “And with activism, there has to be a connection [to nature]. So one thing we added to the film was a discussion of monoculture forests because in Japan, especially after WWII, the rice fields which had been replanted with fast growing cedars are telling us something about the huge impact we’ve had on nature. And I asked myself, isn’t this what we’re doing to our own forests in Canada?”

As Abela suggests, throughout the world, governments are actively promoting the expansion of large-scale monoculture tree growth, despite the serious social and environmental impacts. In New Brunswick (on whose border I am writing this article) the Acadian forest “ceased to exist” as a result of harvesting for shipbuilding in the 1800s, according to J. Loo and N. Ives in their article in The Forestry Chronicle, "The Acadian forest: Historical condition and human impacts." Currently the average forest age is approximately 55 years and consists overwhelmingly of white spruce, a species regenerating on abandoned farmland. As the Chronicle documents, over time, the Acadian forest and its distribution of species has become less diverse, resulting in lower overall ecosystem diversity.

It is easy to leave this film feeling inspired, but I always approach a documentary film with the understanding that the truth behind what is said is as potent as what is not shown. Do the eco-pilgrims maintain their promises to practice sustainable business? Do they continue to embrace their new-found connection to nature? I was moved by the film's slow and beautiful exploration of the pilgrims' journeys toward spiritual reconnection and environmental awareness, but it was hard to stifle laughter as they desperately lit up at the summit. Likewise it was hard to stomach the fact that, while women are allowed to participate in the practice, they are forbidden to set foot on the top (having climbed a fairly significant mountain myself, I can’t imagine being denied this hard-earned prize).

However, should we embrace Shugendo Now's call to take a more balanced approach to environmental actions, to become empowered as individuals and less fanatic about the actions of others, then perhaps this kind of tension is integral . Ultimately, what I took away from this film is that even the busiest, most consumerist among us have a deep human need to recognize the sacredness of the environment, a truth the film addresses in a subtle, palatable way. And while the environmental message of the film may be its “heart,” the great strength of Shugendo Now is its camera work, recalling another beautiful film, Rivers and Tides, the documentary by German filmmaker Thomas Riedelsheimer of the British nature artist Andy Goldsworthy (who lives in Scotland). In fact, Goldsworthy’s words could serve as an alternative tag-line for Shugendo Now (for the cynics among us): “I don’t think the land needs me, but I need it.”

The best way to view this film? I suggest donning a sweater and projecting it on a bed sheet, on an autumn balcony, with the wind and the city sirens providing a very fitting, if contrasting, soundtrack. The directors have applied to several festivals but if you would like to host a screening or order a DVD please send them email at shugendonow@gmail.com or visit the website.

Meaghan Thurston has worked in Montreal, Halifax and Guatemala and currently resides and studies in Edinburgh.

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