Observance ranks high among lofty terms dedicated to religious practice. It likes purity. It likes ritual. As in: I'm an observant Catholic, Jew, Muslim, Buddhist. Differing from divine revelation, visions, or even obsessions, observance mostly shies from radical breaks and unhinged madness. But deep within its magnetic purity is performance. The heart of an observant tingles with ego, with virtue. The gestures are measured for show. This double meaning digs at a truth among the pious: To see the light, but also to be seen seeing it.
Zang Yang’s Paths of the Soul appears to be a pilgrimage observed by a man with a camera. A Tibetan village decides to send a small group of Buddhist pilgrims on a spiritual journey to the Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, the second highest city in the world. They make the nearly 1,300 mile trek through the Himalayas on foot and, miraculously, on their bellies, diving to the pavement every few feet in an act of courageous devotion.
The physical exertion is palpable. The group wears wooden blocks on their hands for protection and sheepskin aprons for the rest of their bodies. Perfectly achieved, the devoted are literally prostrate on the highway with their foreheads to the ground, their hands and forearms forming a small triangle in prayer. And then they are up again. Standing. Walking. Then down to the ground, flat to the pavement. Up and walking. Down to the ground. Up down up down up down, for the duration of the film.
The way Zang directed and shot the film is central to the experience. It's not monotonous, but monotony is occasionally conveyed. His method helps us feel as though we are watching an authentic spiritual quest. And, in a way, we are. The film documents a real pilgrimage that thousands of Tibetans embark on every year. The director, however, employed his non-professional cast and also staged some of the scenes. Meaning: Zang is not exactly documenting a pilgrimage. Knowing this, I couldn’t help but wonder the extent to which these observant people wished to be observed themselves. We all wondered, if we knew.
Does this slight of hand matter? Not particularly, unless you are a journalist, a lawyer seeking verifiable facts, or maybe a religious fanatic. The end result is a spectacular film, with every possible mishap overcome— birth, death, rockslides, car crashes, lack of food, lack of money — Paths of the Soul has it all. It is cinematic.
Salomé Lamas’ Eldorado XXI sets out with a different and perhaps tighter spiritual agenda. The filmmaking itself is ritual. Lamas' eye encourages or even demands our own observant attentiveness. Labor is the subject. After just a few and beautiful establishing shots surrounding the Peruvian village of La Rinconada, purported to be the highest permanent human settlement in the world, and higher than Lhasa, Lamas plants her tripod firmly on a steep gold miners' trail. This is the second of two attempts Lamas made to capture the scene, and a distinct cinematic frame, with which she had become obsessed. The first screened at Portugal's Serralves Museum in 2015.
The camera doesn’t move for nearly an hour as we watch miner after miner climb a snaking, muddy, trash-strewn path passed the lens. This is definitely the longest single take I have ever seen. (Consider Bela Tarr's famous long take in the opening scene for Satantango. A mere 7'33"... and the camera actually moves.) A few people in the audience at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater walked out. In spite of the interesting audio track of Radio el Minero, this long shot tries the patience, which, of course, it should. And, I believe, it was meant to. Here we find an emerging ritual, two times achieved. With a much tighter approach than Zang, Lamas attempts to cinch our spirits in a prostrate position before labor. She fixes our devotion to the cause while deserting audience members file toward the theater exit. Unfortunate for them.
Past this master shot, the film spins slowly, intriguingly into various gatherings of La Rinconada, each episode seems increasingly prayer oriented until a final Catholic mass and street party. Intimate off-grid fire dances with masked miners toting walking sticks. Solemn rituals in honor of Santa Tierra Pachamama, "the Awichita who's always with us." Santa Tierra Pachamama is the Andean Earth goddess, the patron saint of gold miners and "Awichita" is the mountain that holds the gold, a sleeping beauty. But Awichita also appears to be a name for the women in the community and perhaps even a menacing femininity that also surrounds and protects. The group mixes Andean prayer with nods to Catholicism, blessing belongings and mining tools with frankincense in an ornate thurible.
Lamas' artistic license differs from Zang's. Hers is a subtler brush. Rather than Zang's slight of hand -- to employ actors in depicting a documentary of religious observance -- we have stronger associations, longer observations, and auditory manipulation. Where Zang hoodwinks, Lamas uses well placed artifice to push the reality we witness. It's a different approach that may seem immaterial at first. Does it matter how the story gets told as long as the result is effective? Not really. Both are excellent films, but Eldorado XXI anchors depictions with fidelity, a humility before the spirit of gold-mine labor and its impact on the people who live in La Rinconada. Perhaps more than observation, we feel Lamas' obsession and the effacing of the ego that implies. In Paths of the Soul, Zang remains mostly performative, seeing the light, but also hoping to be seen seeing it.