Video team creates a moving experience

May 19, 2003
Banking on the future in Nepal. (Photo: Ryan Lash)

HAIFA, Israel — It was the night of the world premiere at the Baha'i World Centre in Haifa. The theatre lights dimmed and the screening began. As the opening scenes unfolded it was clear the production team had a hit on its hands.

The name of the video production, "Building Momentum," could not have been more apt. The excitement of the audience grew as it was taken on a visual journey from a dynamic Baha'i community on one continent, to a counterpart on another, then another and another. Intakes of breath, laughter at the right moments and palpable waves of emotion began rippling through the theatre.

The video was portraying groups of Baha'i communities (called "clusters") who were following the guidance of the Universal House of Justice to build the capacity of individuals through study circles, and to hold devotional meetings and children's classes with participation from anyone who wanted to join, whether Baha'i or not. The video opened among the greenery of Zambia and closed in the lowlands of Nepal, and on the way took its viewers on a trip through Canada, Italy, Malaysia, Australia and Colombia.

The story showed an energetic worldwide religious community on the move, with individuals and groups enthused about taking charge of their own spiritual and material development and welcoming the participation not only of Baha'is but of people from other faiths or with no particular religious affiliation.

By the end of the trip the audience was invigorated. This was a premiere in the Holy Land, not Hollywood, but that did not stop people rising to their feet at the end of the performance and calling for the team to take a bow. Emerging reluctantly into the spotlight of attention were May Taherzadeh, 26, from South Africa; Naysan Naraqi, 28, from Papua New Guinea; and Ryan Lash, 25, of Canada.

Absent that night were their mentors, United States filmmakers Mark and Suzanne Bamford, who are based in South Africa. Mr. Bamford guided the team throughout by phone and email and helped them with the final version. Mrs. Bamford, a scriptwriter, contributed significantly to the development of the video.

The team members said they ensured they took an ethical approach to their work, that everything was genuinely happening. The type of production did not emphasize any particular culture, nor was any country favored. The order of appearance was for story reasons and not in the order of filming or to show that one was more advanced than others. All clusters, in fact, were carrying out all activities but for the purposes of the film each was shown attending to just some of them.

Devotional meetings in Australia enhance spirituality. (Photo: Ryan Lash) Slideshow
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Devotional meetings in Australia enhance spirituality. (Photo: Ryan Lash)

The team said they wanted to film more than just people talking or being involved in their activities. "We wanted to capture their joyfulness and spirit," said Ms. Taherzadeh.

So what was their impression of the Baha'i world? Ms. Taherzadeh said it was if all the documents of the Universal House of Justice had come to life. "People were talking about their area's level of growth and development, having reflection meetings, and carrying out the study circles, children's classes, devotional meetings." She said she had witnessed the truth of the assertion that the Baha'i community had "unity in thought, cohesion in their work."

Mr. Naraqi and Mr. Lash said they were impressed that the Baha'is were concentrating on blurring the lines between people who were and who were not Baha'i, that many people from outside the Baha'i community were becoming involved in Baha'i activities, getting in touch with the message of Baha'u'llah. Ms. Taherzadeh said she observed everywhere that Baha'is were taking responsibility for themselves." People had started to say, 'I can do it'," she said.

In one scene, a chief in Zambia, resplendent in his yellow robes, explained how he decided to forego his entitlement to be an autocrat in his village in order to participate in unrestricted consultation, the women participating alongside the men.

In scenes shot in other countries, the film showed residents of large urban centers enlivening their devotional meetings by the use of the arts, and inviting neighbors to join with them in prayer and reflection.

Although people portrayed in one country may have come from a different social class, educational level and ethnic background than those in another, their enjoyment of study circles seemed to be at the same high level. In Nepal, the people decided to build a school and set up their own bank -- and went ahead and did just that.

For the production team it had been an inspiring but grueling eight months of unremitting work in preparing for the task, shooting the video in the seven countries, "logging" (annotating minute by minute) the video on plane journeys and attending the myriad other tasks involved. Their deadline was April 2003.

"Eight months was a very tight time frame," said Ms. Taherzadeh, who had previously worked on other Baha'i productions in Africa and the United States. "We only had four days off and that was in the Holy Land on the (Baha'i) holy days."

Mr. Naraqi, who left his position as a CNN producer to work on the production, agreed that it had been a demanding workload. "We were in each country an average of two weeks," he said. The schedules had been prepared by Continental Counsellors and Auxiliary Board members so that the team could hit the ground running and attend to a rigid schedule of interviews.

"It was my first project of this scope," said Mr. Lash, whose professional background includes working as freelance photographer on assignments for the New York Times in West Africa.

With 25 hours of footage from each country having to be reduced to about five minutes, the editing workload was immense. The time available for that task, instead of being the usual three times that taken for filming, was reduced to a one to one ratio.

"One thing we decided before we set out," said Ms. Taherzadeh, "was this project can't be a successful one if we are not united. That is what kept us going -- unity. We also always referred to the messages of the Universal House of Justice, that was our reference point." Prayer was a constant source of strength.

She said that as they went along the team members learned and strengthened their skills. Their own development as film makers ran in a parallel to the very theme of the video, which looked at how the skills and capacities of ordinary Baha'is grew as they studied together and put into practice what they learned.

They decided to share roles as director, camera operator, editor, and scriptwriter.

"We were strict about the fact that we did not give people prepared questions," Mr. Naraqi said. "We wanted them to speak from the heart." The video has versions with subtitles in English, French and Spanish, and an "international version" with no subtitles so that individual countries can place their own language on the video.

The team had decided not to use a narrator but to let the people speak for themselves. Ms. Taherzadeh said the use of subtitles instead of voice-over allowed people to have their own voice. "They are creators of their own story," she said. "Their own voices should be heard -- that's what was important."

Screenings of the video are taking place at national Baha'i conventions throughout the world in May 2003 and thereafter in Baha'i communities.