The spirit moves in two ethnography-oriented San Francisco-made films.

Essential SF: 'Holy Ghost People,' 'Samsara'

Michael Fox July 13, 2011

From Haight Street communes to porn empires to religious cults, a host of utopian experiments have found fertile ground in the Bay Area. Idealism of this kind requires faith, albeit faith in human beings, and its life span—a seed of a dream blossoms into a tangible, real-world accomplishment, runs aground on the frailty of human nature, and evaporates in a toxic cloud of disillusionment, betrayal and recrimination—has inspired numerous great documentaries. Faith in God isn’t as inherently dramatic, or cinematic, and it’s the rare film (Michael Jacobs’ 2007 doc, Audience of One, comes to mind) that succeeds in portraying man’s belief in a higher power. Here are a couple of timeless works by Bay Area filmmakers who visited distant cultures to probe the mysteries of faith.

(Editor’s note: This is the latest in a continuing series of articles compiling the key documentaries and narrative features by Bay Area independent filmmakers. Like any pantheon, Hall of Fame, or “Best of” list, it is a subjective selection, and invites comment and debate.)

Holy Ghost People (1967)
Peter Adair was in his early 20s when he ventured with a camera to the Appalachian town of Scrabble Creek, West Virginia. I don’t know how he heard about the community of Pentecostals who lived there, or how he got access and permission to film their services. It was a less media-savvy (and media-suspicious) world, of course, but I suspect that Adair simply evinced honest curiosity and that was sufficient.

Honesty is certainly the quality that distinguishes his black-and-white verité masterpiece. There isn’t a whiff of condescension in its 53 minutes, a heck of a feat for a Los Angeles native encountering an isolated clan of unschooled rural folk. Adair’s gaze is steady and sharp, and in a profound gesture of respect he allows us to see the people as they are, and as they see themselves.

The lack of editorial comment enables the doc’s pure, piercing effect on audiences. The towering anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote at the time, “The people in the film are work-worn and show the marks of malnutrition, poverty and poor medical care, and yet, on a recent showing to a very sophisticated audience, someone on my right exclaimed, ‘What beautiful people!’”

Adair sticks with his non-judgmental approach all the way through the mesmerizing, climactic church service, coming away with a one-of-a-kind record of the preacher handling poisonous snakes and people speaking in tongues. Most filmmakers wouldn’t be able to resist exploiting the scene’s sensationalism or telegraphing their contempt for what they might see as backwoods blarney, but Adair lets us live in the moment, and fall under the congregation’s sway.

The sequence (and the film) remain so effective, four decades later, that Stephen Parr of Oddball Films features Holy Ghost People as the centerpiece of his pretty-much-annual “American Trance” program.

Adair, who was taken by AIDS in 1996, produced a small but enormously impactful body of work in his abbreviated career. Word Is Out (made with the Mariposa Film Group), The AIDS Show: Artists Involved with Death and Survival (co-directed with Rob Epstein) and the first-person doc Absolutely Positive were groundbreakers in gay film.

In retrospect, Holy Ghost People is an anomaly in Adair’s oeuvre. Be that as it may, it stands as one of the greatest ethnographic films ever made.

Samsara (1990)
The first time I saw Ellen Bruno’s Samsara: Survival and Recovery in Cambodia, at a sparsely attended Film Arts Festival press screening at the Roxie, I was entranced. Literally. The meditative pacing, the rhythm of bells and chimes, the luxuriant green landscape, the otherworldly response to horrific recent history—I was transported not just to a faraway place but to an altered consciousness.

Samsara was a revelation, and I know now that at least some of its effect can be attributed to the fact that it was the first experiential documentary I’d ever seen. Like every other American weaned in the public school system, I expected documentaries to be educational and informational. They could be persuasive, and even manipulative. But evocative? Here was a film comprised of sensations, not facts, and I was touched in an unfamiliar and wonderful way.

I suppose Samsara is a political film, and perhaps a social-issue film. Bruno was suggesting an optimistic future post-Khmer Rouge, based on the resilience, gentleness and philosophy of the Cambodian people. These qualities derive from Buddhism, and Samsara plays (for me, at least) like a healing balm of ritual and spirituality.

Bruno was a relief worker who discovered that it was more efficient and effective to make a film than to individually explain the same concept over and over and over. Attuned to art as well as craft, her nascent filmmaking sensibility was the antithesis of straightforward training videos.

She may have known what she wanted to express when she conceived Samsara, but Bruno was a novice filmmaker. So she enlisted her friend Ellen Kuras as cinematographer, with phenomenal results. (The New York-based Kuras, you may know, went on to shoot Swoon, Summer of Sam and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and co-directed the Academy Award-nominated doc The Betrayal.)

I am shocked to this day that Samsara is only 29 minutes, but that’s the virtue of a well-made experiential doc: It works on you, and stays with you, in a different way than a traditional, linear piece. As it turned out, Bruno wasn’t experimenting with a style but developing an aesthetic.

In the ensuing years she’s made four short docs (the longest is 50 minutes), and each one speaks to the soul rather than the brain. Bruno makes no effort to explain, or to persuade. Presence is sufficient, with a dash of faith.

Notes from the Underground
Congratulations to the San Francisco-based Independent Television Service (ITVS), which marks its 20th anniversary this week....Nancy Fishman Film Releasing acquired its second title, “Romeo and Juliet in Yiddish.” Eve Annenberg’s indie feature opened July 8 at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center at Lincoln Center.... Rough Cuts presents Bitter Seeds, Micha Peled’s forthcoming documentary about the pernicious effects of genetically modified cotton seeds in India, Thursday, July 21. Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine will moderate the discussion at CounterPulse. For more details, visit