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Doc Talk: Pilgrims of several sorts, Hindu nationalism, life in Lodz then and now

Busts of Elvis Presley in a Memphis gift shop, as seen in "The Faithful."Annie Berman

As recent history has shown, people pick the oddest idols to worship.

One day while touring Vatican City in 1999, filmmaker Annie Berman spotted lollipops with the image of Pope John Paul II on them being sold at a kiosk. She learned that these and numerous other likenesses of the Holy See on T-shirts, mugs, snow globes and ashtrays were also on sale, duly licensed by the Vatican which took a share of the proceeds. This put her in mind to visit Graceland, in Memphis, Elvis Presley’s last home, his gravesite, and a place of worship for millions of fans since the King’s death, in 1977. Another figure adored posthumously that came to her attention was Princess Diana, whose faithful followers annually honor her death, in 1997, and continue to stockpile memorabilia.


Berman decided to film the cults surrounding these three icons over the course of two decades, revisiting their pilgrimage sites at the Vatican, Graceland, and Kensington Palace. The quest became a kind of reckoning with her own feelings and beliefs, and two decades later she achieved a ruminative, haunting, and strange documentary, “The Faithful: The King, the Pope, the Princess.”

Berman’s project itself became a kind of obsession, as she compiled hundreds of tapes on her subjects, learning to empathize with seeming eccentrics, such as the woman who believes an image of Elvis emerges from the murk of a window, or the elderly man with the umbrella hat who helps the annual visitors to Kensington mark Diana’s death by attaching flowers and other offerings to the palace gate.

She also learns that the images of these idols are not necessarily in the public domain, having to struggle over the years with representatives of the various estates for the right to include them in her film. Thankfully, she persisted, and the result offers compassionate and unsettling insight into the nature of faith and worship, and a glimpse at those who profit by it.


“The Faithful: The King, the Pope, the Princess” premieres virtually on March 19 at 7 p.m. with live discussions with the filmmakers.

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Hindu sword ladies, as seen in "Reason."

Critique of pure faith

Anand Patwardhan, who for five decades has been one of India’s most important, prolific, and provocative documentarians, takes a look at the faithful from a different point of view.

In his most recent film, the eight-part, four-hour-long “Reason” (2018), Patwardhan examines the rise of Hindu nationalism, from the extremists who assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 to the emergence of Narendra Modi, prime minister since 2014, and his right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

In a sense, “Reason” is a chronicle of assassinations — from that of Gandhi to the more recent murders of rationalist activists. The latter crimes have received only nominal investigations from police but are suspected to have been perpetrated by Sanatan Sanstha, a far-right cabal. The film is also a litany of atrocities — the lynchings and beatings of Muslims and Dalits (Untouchables) by enraged Hindu mobs for such blasphemous crimes as being suspected of eating cow meat or fraternizing with upper-caste Hindu women.

Isolated superstition or fanaticism alone did not motivate this violence. Instead, as Patwardhan argues, it has been fomented over the years by ambitious, powerful interests who have nurtured a counterfactual myth of Hindu supremacy, an ideology spread through social media and by a compliant media. These beliefs have won the allegiance of the masses and stoked their anger, directing it at scapegoats such as Muslims and Dalits as a distraction from the corruption and incompetence of those who rule. A particular target of this movement are those who would counter it with the clarity of facts and reason.


Patwardhan, whose films have been censored and whose life has been threatened, is an internationally esteemed filmmaker not well known in the United States. His complete works can now be streamed at

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New and old owners hang up the still-life painting that's at the heart of "Still Life in Lodz." Logtv Films

Still alive in Lodz

The title of Slawomir Grünberg’s “Still Life in Lodz” has more than one meaning. The still life mentioned refers specifically to a beloved painting of a table with fruit and flowers that hung above a sofa in the apartment where Lilka Elbaum grew up in the Polish city of Lodz after World War II. But it also refers to the fact that despite the Holocaust and the anti-Semitism of the subsequent Communist regime the Jewish community and culture still live in Lodz — both in the city itself and in the minds and memories of those with connections there.

The film opens with the rattling of rails and a view from a train reminiscent of a recurring image in Claude Lanzmann’s “Shoah” (1985). Elbaum is en route to her hometown to track down what she calls “a metaphor” for her story, the title painting which now remains only as a blank space outlined on the wall of her old apartment. She is joined in her pursuit of memories of a lost life by Paul Celler, of New York, whose mother survived both the Lodz ghetto and Auschwitz, and Israeli artist Roni Ben-Ari, whose family had owned a textile workshop before the war in the building where Elbaum’s family would live. The three search for their past and, as in a film by Krzysztof Kieślowski, find that their lives intersect in unexpected, serendipitous ways.


Grünberg supplements such conventional devices as voiceovers, interviews, and archival material with animated reenactments and an eerie melding of images of the Lodz of the past with that of the present, showing what was lost and what survived. The film evokes melancholy and hope, but also lingering anxiety. Elbaum’s family was sheltered from the Nazis by courageous Polish gentiles. The family returned to the city after the war, but when the government encouraged a wave of anti-Semitism in 1968 Elbaum emigrated to Canada. The spirit of the old Jewish communities in Lodz still lives, but so does the specter of the evil that could destroy them.

“Still Life in Lodz” can be streamed via the Coolidge Corner Theater’s Virtual Screening Room.

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