Spirit Award-nominated writer/director Adam Bhala Lough has dedicated his career to telling compelling stories, collaborating with interesting people and creating authentic work. Moving between narrative and documentary, his films sit at the nexus of mainstream culture and the arthouse. He specializes in crafting real performances out of non-performers, artists, musicians, athletes and celebrities, while bringing Oscar-winning actors to the table as well. His films have played at Sundance, Tribeca, SXSW, Edinburgh and Karlovy Vary, to name a few. His new film, Alt-Right: Age of Rage, opens in theaters on August 17. For updates, follow him on Twitter @adambhalalough (Photo credit: Betty Bastidas)
When I was 16, I turned my back on the church and never returned. Up until that year, I was a normal Christian kid who went to worship service every Sunday and took part in youth group. I was hardly an angel — I smoked, I fought, I drove my parents crazy — but in Virginia, where I grew up, going to church was a normal thing for a kid to do, so I did it. And I mostly enjoyed it, especially youth group.
That year, the youth group leader retired and a new guy took over. Far more evangelical than his predecessor, he was also young, charismatic, played NCAA Division III basketball, an all-around cool guy… at first. I still remember the discussion, “Why Inter-religious Marriage is a Sin,” and Paul the Apostle’s oft-repeated quote on the subject: “Do not be unequally yoked to non-believers.” I’m the product of a union between a Christian father and a Hindu mother, so it was a commandment I could not reconcile. “So you’re trying to tell me my parents are living in sin?” I yelled. “Yep, and if you marry outside the Church, you will be living in sin too.”
I walked out and never returned. Twelve years later, I married a Jew and am still happily married. And so are my sinner parents, by the way. When I sat down to watch Maxime Giroux’s fantastic new film, Félix & Meira, I immediately related to the main character’s situation, because ultimately the film is about a woman’s struggle with, and abandonment of, her religion and her community.
For Meira, an Orthodox Jew living in Montreal, that struggle first manifests itself in her simple desire to listen to secular music (the haunting “After Laughter (Comes Tears)” by Wendy Rene, famously sampled by the RZA on Enter the Wu-Tang: 36 Chambers). Then, putting on a pair of jeans. And later, a dangerous affair with a non-believer (Martin Dubreuil’s Félix). At one point, Meira, played with astonishing power by young Israeli actress Hadas Yaron, is so fed up with the shackles of her religion that she falls down on the floor at the feet of her husband (Luzer Twersky) and plays dead.
He sees and feels her pain but is powerless to help, lest he be cast out of his community and ostracized by his own family. Here’s where I realized this film made an odd companion piece to Alex Gibney’s Scientology documentary Going Clear, which I had watched a few days earlier. In that film, former members of the Church of Scientology recount being cut off from their closest family members (their own children, even) for defecting. For all the shock and horror that Going Clear stirred up amongst many of my non-religious friends — and everyone on Twitter — let’s be straight, Scientology is not that different from Orthodox Judaism, radical Islam or born-again Christianity. OK, so those religions don’t have spaceships and aliens and all that wacky sci-fi stuff, but still. As Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an interview with The Daily Beast a couple weeks ago, “So, you have people who are certain that a man in a robe transforms a cracker into the literal body of Jesus saying that what goes on in Scientology is crazy? Let’s realize this: What matters is not who says who’s crazy, what matters is we live in a free country. You can believe whatever you want, otherwise it’s not a free country — it’s something else. If we start controlling what people think and why they think it, we have case studies where that became the norm. I don’t care what the tenets are of Scientology. They don’t distract me. I don’t judge them, and I don’t criticize them.”
I have friends who are Scientologists, family members who are born-again Christians and in-laws who are Orthodox Jews. I had my falling-out with organized religion and I would never give money, time or energy to a belief system that considers gays to be evil or inter-religious marriage to be a sin (which, last time I checked, all those religions do, by the way). But I respect their belief systems, even though I don’t agree with them, because that’s what we’re supposed to do as human beings. We’re supposed to respect each other’s beliefs, even if they’re bat-shit crazy, and try our hardest not to judge. Yes, it’s hard as hell but incredibly rewarding. Have you ever had the experience of a great friendship with someone who has the exact opposite belief system to yours? It can be life-changing.
We as filmmakers have the responsibility to not judge our characters. And in real life we must work 10 times harder than the average person to accept people for who they are. That’s how we get to know people on a deeper level and that’s how we create dynamic characters. Otherwise you get bullshit, cookie-cutter superhero movies where all the characters talk and act the same.
Félix & Meira is a dark, thought-provoking film with complex, well-written characters, led by one of the most unforgettable performances in recent memory from Hadas Yaron.