By Joshua Lewin
In her latest project, Serpents and Doves, filmmaker Nellie Kluz of Chicago introduces us to her exploration of the rituals that transport life on Earth from simple existence to the designed experience experienced as humanity. She does this, initially, through a thread of light.
As the film opens, Kluz illuminates the smallest detail; a cluster of leaves on a wall, bathed in a ray of sun. The rest of the image is casually set in its natural shadow. A tone sounds, nearly imperceptibly. It took me three viewings to notice how early the tone truly began.
Throughout a series of still images, actually long takes of the serene, built to suit scenes of life, currently uninhabited by those that built them; the light grows. As it grows, the tone’s volume increases—maybe itself carried by the light. A sound of birds is introduced. The sound of life. Light and sound pull us forward into our collective questions.
One of the first lines we hear spoken aloud is about a soundtrack. This soundtrack is the recording that accompanies The Great Passion Play, a charity and community theater project in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. The play traces the last moments of the life of Jesus Christ, and in 2018, celebrated its 50th anniversary showing. The play also provides a willing backdrop to Kluz’s revelation of humans being human, her examination of found sounds, found light, and found life.
To borrow from one of the subjects in Serpents and Doves, “of course you know…” that the passion play is not unique to the residents of Eureka Springs; churches around the world engage in a similar event, just before the spring holidays with a wide array of production quality. The tradition exists across many Christian denominations, but I have most often encountered it in a fairly evangelical sense. I suppose this should be expected — the rest may be a little bit quieter about it. Where I went to high school, one particular student would even come in selling tickets, at a discount, to the annual event.
Eureka Springs though is at least somewhat unique in the comprehensiveness of their production; the time spent in preparation, the deep traditions that these realities have spurred in its participants, spectators, and hopefuls. And now, through Nellie Kluz, its potential to reach each of us with a message, even if not the officially approved one.
Kluz invites us to witness the range of emotion and self reflection that is made possible as a cast of unlikely dramatists submits to the challenge of not only understanding themselves and their friends, but to understand the motivations of their characters. In some cases these players must struggle, and succeed, to find the empathy required to set aside their most personal and tightly held beliefs, and give voice to an alternate viewpoint, even if only on stage. One actor goes so far as to express a longing to be the other,”It would be kind of cool to be Pilate, but that’s the wrong side…”
Our lives are filled with rituals. Invariably, the word evokes images of religious nature. Images that bring comfort to the pious, guilt to the casual believer, and dread to the reluctant, or unwilling...dragged along by some authority, real or imagined. But what of the unwitting?
The religious rituals that shape our lives by design are planned and obvious. We build structures in which to practice them, and hang signs to draw attention to them, to attract new devotees, and to mark the trail home for the displaced. Are all of our rituals so clearly designed though?
Even in the most religious of contexts, could the outward display of the rituals mask something deeper and more secular, more personal, or at least more non-denominational? Could our need to identify on the surface with one another, instead of simply taking deeper solace within ourselves, obscure the greater potential for connectedness that drives us to ritual in the first place?
This film is about The Great Passion Play, to be sure, but in sharing its reality with us, I believe Nellie Kluz has given us the opportunity to explore our own understanding of ourselves. Or our multiple selves. In one scene, a young man in a military issued t-shirt drills holes into a handmade helmet that will transform him into a member of the Roman guard. We see him so transformed a moment later, complete with red cape, and on horseback.
Toward the end of the film a woman explains to us the rapture — that event when all of God’s faithful will purportedly be transported into a beautiful eternity, their clothes and belongings neatly folded and placed in the spot where they once stood or sat— and I wonder upon that rapture which version of us is likely to be represented? The patriotic American or the faithful Roman? If as I suspect, we wouldn’t have any say or foreknowledge should such an unlikely event take place, what happens if the only record of us left behind is the version we allow up on stage? And is that version of us any less realistic than the one in our favorite, worn through t-shirt?
Textbook rapture imagery aside, the subjects in this film take us through a series of incredibly impactful moments from their lives. We learn about the loss of a son, an instant death, at the touch of an electrical wire. This plays over the sounds of an electrical storm, and a difficult decision that threatens to derail the all important play that brought, and continues to bring, these individuals together to examine themselves.
A beautiful, long, image anchors the film about halfway through. Smoke, thick enough at first to completely obscure the sky, the light, the time of day. The smoke thins, eventually, gradually allowing the persistent dots of evening stars to shine through. This scene contrasts sharply with one a few moments later: a mannequin is hoisted, noose tight around its neck, and hangs from a tree under the bright light of the afternoon sun. Death, the constant result of all of our fears, snuffs out the faraway source of all of our light.
A thread of longing for bravery, desire for confidence, a best-self version of us that experiences no hesitation in moments of fear, is traced by the growing light of this story. The fearlessness exemplified throughout allows the players to reach out with an empathy they may struggle to understand in their own personal lives. The bravery is in the acceptance of that empathy and openness, and offering it back, if only on stage.
Are there answers in any of that faraway light? If so, how long will they take to reach us? In reaching us, how long will they take to spread wide enough to matter? In closing, I’ll borrow a line from Serpents and Doves’s beginning, “We do know…we are supposed to know the lines —um—word for word…” and one from its end, “Last night, I had a dream that everything was different and I didn’t know what to do and I missed every single part…and I got fired.”
I think we all know that dream, regardless of the rituals we build or accept, to fight against it.
From Nellie Kluz: My approach is about looking for visual clues about belief systems or cultural fantasies that are hard to see. A lot of my recent work has dealt with religion and tourism, places where people really try to transcend the everyday, but I'm looking at the mechanisms and behind-the-scenes work that go into those escape systems. My interest in making videos is so much about the opportunity to be be a first-hand observer, going into spaces and situations where I’m something of an outsider and seeing what happens. I shoot and edit my own videos and all the footage I collect feels autobiographical. I’m going for a style that’s open-ended enough to let viewers make up their own minds about what’s happening, because even thought I was present in a situation I filmed, I could obviously never see or know everything about it, there’s too much detail. When I’m editing my footage I have fun and try to add in all the things I enjoy about cinema; jokes, juxtapositions, moments using color, texture and shapes. A lot of times context clues about what’s happening really fall away as I focus on what’s most interesting to me and what most resonates in the footage, because that’s the material that will hold up best.
Serpents and Doves has been screened at multiple festivals and events including the New Orleans Film Festival, Tacoma Film Festival and a special screening event featuring this and more of Kluz’s work at the Echo Park Film Center in Los Angeles. www.NellieKluz.com