It began with her film What Do You Believe?. Nearly two decades later, Feinbloom embarked on a venture: a follow-up film in which she observes how young people are making space for their spirituality where traditional religion does not fit. In this interview, Feinbloom discusses the challenges, discoveries, and emotions while making her newest film, What Do You Believe Now?. Interview conducted by Kara Grant.
Seventeen years ago, filmmaker Sarah Feinbloom released What Do You Believe?, a documentary about six mainly Bay Area teens - including a Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Lakota, Jew and Pagan - and their beliefs about everything from higher powers to the afterlife. Between 1999 and 2001, she interviewed over 200 teenagers before finding the ideal final six. They were all dealing with universal and personal dilemmas related to their religion and spirituality, as well as the challenges of being teenagers – a time of tremendous soul searching.
Feinbloom says she never intended on making a follow-up documentary, despite people frequently asking her what happened to the young people profiled in the film; in part because it had been so challenging to make that first film.
After completing What Do You Believe? and 9/11 occurred, Feinbloom felt much more urgency to share the film. She spent the next several years leading interfaith workshops nationally and distributing the documentary to over 2,000 schools and organizations. In 2010, she wrapped up this outreach and educational work and moved on to other documentary projects.
For some reason, however, she kept lugging around the original footage as she moved apartments and finally left the Bay Area. She told herself not to throw out the tapes because she hoped one day to find the six subjects and give them the raw footage.
Still, Feinbloom had not planned to make a follow-up to What Do You Believe?. It was not until hearing from one of her old subjects that changed her mind.
“It was actually Julius, who contacted me on Facebook in 2017 and said he really wanted me to come back to film his life again,” she explains. “He wanted to talk about what had happened to him and his community in the ensuing years. With a lot of trepidation, I started talking with friends and family about this idea to do a follow-up. Everybody thought it would be so interesting, so I just decided to give it a whirl. I had no idea how difficult it would end up being.”
After some detective work and the power of Facebook, she was able to find the other five subjects.
“It was really emotional for me to reconnect with them and it was also really hard for me to convince them all to be filmed again and agree to be in a follow-up film,” she said
Feinbloom noted that some had secrets and disappointments they were reluctant to share, but she insisted that she couldn’t leave any of their stories out.
The new footage she and her Directors of Photography (DP) Vanessa Carr and Goro Toshima captured, along with the older footage filmed by DP Klara Grunning, became the basis for the new 2019 follow-up film, What Do You Believe Now? - The Spiritual Journeys of American Millennials.
The 2019 documentary offers viewers a rare before and after timelapse of each subject’s spiritual journey over the past 17 years. What Do You Believe Now? is about not only spirituality, but also how we grow, age and redefine our identities over time.
After Feinbloom and her team were done filming, the real challenge began.
“A lot of magic needed to happen during editing,” she says. “It was a huge jigsaw puzzle, with over 160 hours of footage from 1999-2001 and 60 hours of footage from 2018.”
With her Co-Editor/Co-Producer Alex Regalado, along with the help of editor from the first film Anne Flatté and Consulting Editor Doug Blush, they tried hundreds of different combinations until they found the right order to tell the next installment of these six stories. Feinbloom says that the new film was deliberately edited to stand on its own.
“I didn’t want people to have to watch the first film,” she explains. “While we used some of the old footage, we also found things from back then that weren’t in the original, so this really is a brand new film, with its own logic and structure.”
Feinbloom’s personal curiosity about religious diversity stems from her own upbringing in Boston. She never felt accepted by the Jewish community she grew up in, largely because she was raised by a lesbian mother in the 1970s, during a time when the religious right was crusading against homosexuality.
“I was seven when my mom came out. As a little kid, it was really hard for me to understand why these religious groups hated my mom so much,” she said.
In high school, she started learning more about different faiths. “My best friend was part of the African American Methodist Episcopalian Church and he wanted to be a preacher, so he would talk to me about the Christian Bible and take me to church with him,” she said. Once in college, Feinbloom grew close to some Muslim students.
When she became a teacher at a public high school in Boston in the 1990s, Feinbloom recalls that her mostly Christian students would often tell her that she was the first and only Jewish person they had ever met.
“My students had tons of questions about other religions and some scary stereotypes about Jews, Muslims, Atheists and anyone not Christian,” she says. “I couldn’t find enough curriculum that could help them understand others’ beliefs.”
Concerned about the bigotry and misperceptions she faced, Feinbloom turned to documentaries as a way to open up these often segregated worlds. She hoped that by exploring the lives of real people from these various faiths – side-by-side in a documentary – their differences and commonalities could co-exist in a way that showed their shared humanity.
In many ways, What Do You Believe Now? is a snapshot of America’s complicated and diverse religious landscape and especially the experiences of younger Americans with religion.
According to the Pew Research Center, the percentage of young adults born between 1981-1996 — known as millennials — who identify as religiously unaffiliated, is at an all time high of 33%. These millennials have been called the religious ‘nones.’ They’re agnostics, atheists, skeptics and at the same time they are actively choosing to create their own personal brand of spirituality outside of organized religion. An increased interest in meditation, yoga, astrology and the information age of the internet are facilitating these changes. For others, like feminist, LGBTQ and Wiccan millennials, the old religious paradigms don’t always fit.
Feinbloom is very careful not to reveal in advance to the press what happens to each of the six people featured in the film, but says that their journeys reflect their generation and these trends.
“I want it to be a surprise. It’s really the whole premise of the film, to watch each one of them reveal what happened to them, as we jump forward 17 years. They transform before our eyes and that’s what I hope has the biggest impact,” she said.
Although a few of the subjects in the film seem less preoccupied with theological and existential questions, most still are deeply engaged with them. Some have left their religions because they no longer belong or believe, others are continuing to search for relevant spiritual practices and some have reinterpreted their faiths to better fit their lives now.
Feinbloom notes that she has heard from leaders of organized religions who worry about this generation of ‘nones’ and the growing trend of young adults becoming disillusioned with religious institutions. However, she finds some of these developments interesting and perhaps pointing to something new emerging.
“I’m not saying that this film is a survey or a quantitative portrait of these trends, but it does give insight into how this generation is creating their own new spiritual identities. America is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world and we’re not all static in our belief systems either. Especially young people are in the process of blending, challenging, reimagining and changing their beliefs and it’s fascinating to see these shifts happen right before our eyes,” she said.
As for the future of the film and Feinbloom, she and her team are hoping to raise money to do a national interfaith dialogue tour with their fiscal sponsor The Auburn Theological Seminary. Now more than ever, learning about each other in America seems particularly timely and urgent.