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Finding holiness, confronting negligence, documenting destruction

Steve Burrows with his mother, Judie Burrows, in the HBO documentary film “Bleed Out.” HBO

In troubled times like these — and when are the times not troubled? — many of us rely on religious faith for consolation, hope, and guidance. Thomas Lennon’s “Sacred” travels to 25 countries on five continents (sorry Australia and Antarctica) with 40 filmmaking teams to compile a briskly edited glimpse at the exotic variety and profound similarity of religious beliefs and practices around the world.

It opens and closes with a Japanese Buddhist monk who must walk 24,000 miles, over 1,000 days, to fulfill a rite called Sennichi Kaihogyo. The subsequent chapters take his lead and cover the various steps of life’s journey from birth to adulthood to old age and death, and back to birth again. Some of the more striking sequences include a reenactment in the Philippines of the crucifixion, which involves real nails and real agony (Roman Catholic church authorities have tried to discourage this annual ritual) and the pilgrimage to Mecca by an old Muslim woman, who is one of hundreds of thousands in the stunning, orderly sea of white-robed worshippers gathered around the giant black-and-gold-draped granite cube, the Kaaba. She has come to forgive those who murdered her son and husband decades ago.


Though many of the locations are only briefly visited, Lennon pauses now and then for extended stays to focus on individual subjects and share their thoughts and insights. In Sierra Leone a young man in a hazmat suit participates in removing the still-contagious corpses of Ebola victims. His own family perished from the disease, and he believes that the plague is God’s way of punishing his people. A woman whose family suffered a similar fate denounces religion and refuses to believe in a God who kills the poor and innocent.

Most poignant perhaps is the story of an orphan in Pakistan. He tells of a dream he had in which he visited God, who gave him money to take back to earth and give to those who needed it. In the real world, his city has been ravaged by terrorism, and we see scenes of gruesome carnage committed by fanatical believers who kill as an act of faith. “God may forgive the suicide bombers,” the boy says. “But the people never will.”


“Sacred” is available on iTunes, Amazon, and Google Play and will be available on Dec. 25 on DVD ($24.99 PBS).

Health careless

Many of us have had frustrations with the US health care system, but it would be hard to match the Kafkaesque nightmare experienced by Steve Burrows and his family as seen in his documentary “Bleed Out.”

In 2009, Burrows’s 69-year-old mother, Judie, fell while bike riding. After undergoing surgery that presumably repaired the damage, she returned home and during a prolonged and painful recovery fell and broke her hip again. During a second hip surgery, performed despite the fact she was taking a blood-thinning medication, she lost half her blood, fell into a coma, and suffered permanent brain damage.

A steep price to pay for falling off your bike. Unsurprisingly, Burrows was skeptical about the quality of care his mother had received and engaged in a 10-year investigation that he wisely recorded as a documentary. During his frustrating search for justice he encountered a venal and ruthless corporate network of hospitals protected by state and federal laws making it virtually impossible to sue doctors or hospitals for malpractice. Burrows discovers that his mother was cared for in a robotized “e-ICU” unit in which patients were monitored by a camera that was not always turned on. Most shocking is the extent to which physicians and other medical professionals were willing to bend the truth to cover for one another.

Judie’s once-trusted private physician relates almost tearfully in a filmed deposition how much he enjoyed treating her and what a wonderful person she was. Then he proceeds to lie in order to protect himself and his colleagues and the system he works for.


After years of disappointment, Burrows finally gets his day in court. Awaiting the verdict, he reflects that “because of a total lack of accountability on anyone’s part, Mom has become a cottage industry for 150 doctors, seven hospitals, and 10 law firms, spending every penny she saved paying for their mistakes.”

Brightened by rueful humor, not just from Burrows (he’s a comedian ) but his still feisty mother, “Bleed Out” is required viewing at a time when the future of health care looks dark indeed.

“Bleed Out” can be seen on HBO, HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and partners’ streaming platforms .

The wasteland

Japanese filmmaker Toshi Fujiwara’s documentary “No Man’s Zone” (2012) about the tsunami and nuclear meltdown that devastated the coastal communities of Fukushima, Japan on March 11, 2011, opens with not one, but two, slow 360-degree pans of devastation revealing giant beached boats, toppled and gutted buildings, cars tossed and battered like toys, and acres of wasteland, a place where families once lived and worked and now filled with the detritus of their lives.

By the second go-round more details emerge — TV sets, bedsteads, family photos, and, in the distance, the chimneys of the nuclear power plant that spewed out radiation, compelling the authorities to establish the 12-mile “no man’s zone” of the title. For weeks no one could return to gather their belongings, livestock, or pets, and first responders could not rescue those still alive beneath the rubble, or, later, recover and properly bury the dead.

“No Man’s Zone” is at its most powerful when it simply shows the apocalyptic realities of the disaster or interviews the still-stunned survivors who wonder how they will resume their lives when the government bureaucracy is more concerned about saving face than helping victims. The voice-over narrative, gently spoken by the actress Arsinée Khanjian, too often meanders into abstractions. But its central theme — that if a tragedy is ignored it does not go away — is all too resonant.


“No Man’s Zone” can be seen on Filmatique.

Peter Keough can be reached at petervkeough@gmail.com.