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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Joan Osborne sang, "What if God was one of us?" but filmmaker Peter Rodger asks a different question: "What is God?"
In his documentary, Oh My God, which just had its world premiere at the Jerusalem Film Festival, he travels to 23 countries (including Israel), interviewing both believers and skeptics, and posing this question. The answers he got often surprised him, and much of what he heard cheered him, too.
"There was such a great difference between the rhetoric of religious leaders and politicians, and the common man," says Rodger. "It made me think that people are really pretty nice until they get twisted."
Rodger preferred to avoid religious leaders and focus on ordinary believers and non-believers. He does speak with some famous people, though - mainly entertainers, including Ringo Starr; Bob Geldorf, the rocker who organized the Live Aid concert, an outspoken atheist; singer Seal, a believer, who shows photos of his wife, Heidi Klum, and their kids, saying his gorgeous family strengthens his belief in a divine being; actor Hugh Jackman and others.
Although the film has a positive tone and focuses on the areas of commonality between its interviewees and subjects, Rodger was moved to make it out of a feeling of irritation. "I grew fed up with the childish, schoolyard mentality, you know, 'My God is greater than your God.'"
His concern was that this kind of attitude leads to violence, hatred and suffering. "When you have grown men flying airplanes into buildings shouting, 'God is great!' and in 2003, the American president says, 'God told me to end tyranny in Iraq,' and you have another country whose supreme leader says he is God's representative on earth, I thought that we have to educate ourselves about what God is."
Given the ambitious nature of this project, it's not surprising that Rodger has some fairly lofty goals for his film. "I hope it can lead to discussion so that we can educate ourselves and lead a path to tolerance, reconciliation and love."
BRITISH-BORN Rodger, whose father, George Rodger, was a photojournalist who founded Magnum Photos, admits, "I always liked traveling."
A fine artist and award-winning director of commercials, Rodger has created a movie of intense beauty. He filmed Masai warriors dancing, costumed Buddhists in Nepal performing as prayer flags flutter, breathtaking natural wonders such as mountain ranges, Australian aborigines participating in tribal rituals and the faces of children from all over the world. The soundtrack, filled with songs, hymns and chants, is extraordinary, and the total effect of the film is very stirring - whether you agree with the devout or the atheists.
While many of the locations may seem exotic, some of the sights and sounds are from much closer to home. The parts filmed in the Middle East were the most difficult for Rodger.
"The section on Israel and Palestine took me eight weeks to edit," he says. "You can't make a movie about what God is without shooting in the Holy Land, and you can't ask the question there without getting into politics."
It was never his intention to make a political film, although he knew that many might find the movie controversial, so he worked hard to take out anything that would raise red flags with either side. "I didn't want to upset people and I knew that here was a line people would say is pro-Palestinian, there's another line that's pro-Israeli."
He was relieved when he found Rabbi Menachem Froman and Ibrahim Abu El-Hawa, an Orthodox Jew and a Muslim east Jerusalem community leader. The two are active in an organization called Jerusalem Peacemakers that encourages dialogue among Jews, Christians and Muslims.
"I think they really put across the idea of what the whole film is about," he says.
Where is Rodger himself in all this? "I grew up Church of England, and my father was quite religious," he says. "It's a wonderful religion, I totally respect the religion but I don't buy into Jesus being the son of God."
The songs and music of the church still have an "emotional hold" on him, but these days, he's more into "the spirit and beauty of life - if we make use of those, we're living in paradise every day."
Rodger, who also writes dramatic screenplays (several of which are set to be produced soon), says his next film is likely to be, What the Hell? about beliefs and images of the devil.
But first he will take Oh My God to film festivals around the world. "I hope it will help people understand what religion should be, what they want it to be, and not allow themselves to be dictated to."