A Global Search for God

The filmmaking brothers follow up their groundbreaking 9/11 documentary with In God's Name

On the morning of September 11, 2001 French filmmakers Jules and Gedeon Naudetwho had been working for three months on a documentary on firemenfound themselves filming inside the World Trade Towers as they collapsed. The events they captured on film that morning became the basis for their Emmy and Peabody Award winning documentary 9/11. According to Jules, their first-hand experience of that tragedy became the “first step in a journey that would take us around the world searching for answers to the meaning of life.”

That journey is chronicled in In God’s Name, which is the Naudets’ first film since 9/11. In God’s Name (Sunday, December 23, CBS, 9:00-11:00 PM, ET/PT) follows the personal lives and beliefs of 12 diverse religious leaders from around the globe who represent more than four billion faithful.

The 12 leaders featured are:

o Alexy II, Patriarch of Moscow and head of the Russian Orthodox Church
o Amma (Sri Mata Amritanandamayi), a Hindu spiritual leader
o Pope Benedict XVI, head of the Roman Catholic Church
o The Dalai Lama (Tenzin Gyatso), spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists
o Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah, a prominent Shiite Muslim leader
o Bishop Mark Hanson, Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and President of the Lutheran World Federation
o Michihisa Kitashirakawa, Jingu Daiguji (High Priest) of the Shinto Grand Ise Shrine
o Yona Metzger, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Israel
o Dr. Frank Page, President of the Southern Baptist Convention
o Imam Muhammad Sayyed Tantawi, Grand Sheikh of Al-Azhar and a prominent Sunni Muslim leader
o Joginder Singh Vedanti, Jathedar Sri Akal Takht, the Sikhs’ highest authority
o Dr. Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury and head of the Church of England

Just a few days after meeting Pope Benedict at the Vatican, Jules Naudet spoke with Busted Halo about the making of this groundbreaking documentary.

BustedHalo: More than anything else In God’s Name feels like an extensive journey of global faith-seeking.

Jules Naudet: Oh definitely. It really started as a personal journey in a way, and it started on September 11th as I was filming that morning in the lobby of One World Trade Center and me hearing this giant roar from above that I would learn later was the tower next door actually collapsing literally on top of us. I ran for my life and at some point I just stopped and got ready to die, in a way. And all these questions—which I guess are normal questions when you are faced with your own mortality—I asked myself, ‘What am I doing here? What is it all about?’—these very existentialist questions that I had never faced before.

BH: Existentialist questionshmmm, well you are French, right?

JN: Yeah. [laughter] I was very fortunate in my childhood with a family that loved me and all that, and so I never had to confront such violence and it really took me by surprise, to be honest. Surviving that day and continuing to work—these questions were nagging me and were in the back of my head, and talking about it with my brother for a couple of years—but what should we do about it? And since we’re documentary filmmakers we said let’s go on a journey to find answers to these questions. And who better to start with than these amazing spiritual beacons and through that to try to show faith in a different way than we see on the news—we only see extremes on the news. What we wanted was to do something that would show the similarities, even though at the beginning we were a little bit unsure of what we were going to encounter. It was a leap of faith, if I may say, in a way. We knew that there was a danger in making a documentary like this—it should not be a theology lesson because it would turn people off and that was not the idea. The idea was to find a common ground that everyone could relate to with these amazing religious leaders who might seem a bit intimidating at first. The way to do that was to basically follow them in their daily life. I think when you see Pope Benedict in his office, when you see him watching TV or playing the piano; when you see the chief rabbi of Israel walking his kid to school; when you see the Grand Ayatollah Fadlallah playing with his grandkids; the Dalai Lama meditating in the morning—I think you might not be of the same faith, you might not be of the same culture, but when you look at them like this you can say, ‘I relate to him as a father, as a grandfather, as a husband, and as someone who seeks—just like them—that connection with the divine.

“What I used to see before was ‘Oh my God, everyone is divided, no one has common ground,’ and here, after this amazing journey, what we found in all these people in these regions and these faiths, we saw tolerance, we saw love, we saw compassion.”

BH: Were you raised in any sort of a faith background at all?

JN: No, on the contrary. We come from an atheist background, which strangely enough, I think, made us perfect for the project. It enabled us to be completely neutral. We were not influenced by one way or another. So we would look at all these leaders on the same playing field. After 9/11, it looked pretty glum out there, pretty dark. I think in the end, looking at all these people and experiencing all the similarities, there is so much more that unites us than divides us. It gives, at least me in particular, an amazing outlook of hope for the future. What I used to see before was ‘Oh my God, everyone is divided, no one has common ground,’ and here, after this amazing journey, what we found in all these people in these regions and these faiths, we saw tolerance, we saw love, we saw compassion. And time and again that was always there.

BH: What are the questions you wanted to ask the different leaders?

JN: For all of them we used the same questionnaire. From their childhood to now how they found God or how God found them, their hope for their future and the meaning of life and the meaning of death in their civilization. How do they justify killing in the name of God? But also how do they sense the beauty of God? What do they feel when they pray? So from a wide range of questions, and always asking through a personal anecdote or a personal story that would make it concrete for people to listen.

I think it was simply amazing to have this privileged look inside their lives, from when we were with [Lutheran] Bishop Hanson and at the end of the dinner, you know he’s having dinner with his wife, and he’s washing the dishes and then she’s playing the piano and he’s reading—just to be there. And then being in Jerusalem at the Wailing Wall and walking in this city where you feel history in every stone. And then being in the Vatican and the beauty of the place and the majesty and the power, in a way, because when you see all these adoring faithful, it’s very powerful. It was very moving to have this opportunity to look at the person instead of just the religious leader. That’s so refreshing because that’s what we’re not used to seeing.

BH: Who and what surprised you the most while making the film?

JN: Individually, it’s hard to say. One thing in particular, I was not expecting the charisma of these people. I knew they had achieved already such a high level in their faith, in their organization, and in their religion, but—I guess like everyone else—I was very intimidated at first when you would see them and I didn’t know what to expect. But they were very personal people. I definitely got an amazing lesson into watching and experiencing other cultures. It’s really a trip I could recommend to everyone, whether it is physically to travel around, but more importantly just to look at people around us and be able to ask questions and to try to know more, whether from your neighbor or your co-worker. I think that’s something we should do is to try to be a little bit more curious and to be a little bit more inquisitive about other people.

BH: September 11th was directly linked to the Islamic world. Give me a sense of what was it like to speak to the two Islamic leadersa Sunni and a Shiiteand what you came away with.

JN: I came away first with the great beauty of the services of the places, but also the eloquence of these people in talking about the way they worship and their love of God. The dialogue that they have is very beautiful, very poetic. And also what was very important for them was that misconception, that idea that a few thousand extremists have suddenly become—in the West, they have the impression—the rule for about 900 million worshippers. And that’s a great fear. Sheik Tantawi says his greatest fear is that—there are two kinds of people in the world: the wise and the unwise, and he’s afraid that the unwise people will actually take over in the world, and the ‘unwise’ are these terrorists. So I think there is a great fear that people, because they only think about terrorism, they will forget the beauty and the great things of Islam.

BH: Knowing you were at the World Trade Towers on 9/11, did the Islamic leaders talk to you at all about that?

JN: Oh yes. They were quite surprised and fascinated that here were two people who had survived these places and were actually curious and wanted to know more and wanted to see more about Islam, about their faith, and I think they welcomed us because of that—I think that was refreshing for them instead to want to know more about them instead of just judging or stereotyping.

BH: You met Pope Benedict this week?

JN: It was during his Wednesday audience with a lot of other people. But he was very nice. It was very intimidating, of course, because here you see someone who is directly responsible, in a way, for the faith of a billion people. We met him with other people but he stopped and I talked to him a little bit about the project and he was really there, he was very present. It was very nice to be able to tell him about it.