Saturday, September 11, 2010

In the Valley of Fashionable Spirituality

Documentary filmmaker Adrienne Grierson was already well-acquainted with the twin topics of Brazil and spirituality when she made The Valley of Dawn, screening tomorrow at the Film Directing 4 Women Film Festival in London and stateside later this month at events in Sun Valley, Idaho and Rutgers University, New Jersey. Her first substantive film, 2006's John of God, showcased the remarkable healing powers of João de Deus, a channeling medium who performs daily miracles at the Casa de Do Inacio in the central part of the country and for whom Grierson remains one of several tourist guides.

Still, when Grierson first heard about the Brazilian community of Vale do Amanhecer and the unusual beliefs of its 22,000 residents, she wasn't sure quite what to make of it. So she set out to investigate and the result is a delightfully entertaining and non-judgmental look at the area's one-of-a-kind religion. Founded in the 1950s, the female-centric community divides itself into two categories of spiritual mediums (Doutrinador, Apara) and communicates with its founding ancestors from the Planet Capela by wearing intricately woven and spectacularly decorated headdress and gowns.

John of God

"I wouldn't say their religion is based on a spaceship, merely that they believe a ship came [32,000 years ago] and left beings here," explains Grierson during an interview with FilmStew. "This belief is also in Brasilia at the Temple of Good Will. There is a pamphlet by Paiva Netta, a great humanitarian and philanthropist who believed also that we came from there. In fact, it is even likely that the Valley took that from this Brasilia belief, but I do not know for sure."

"The Valley of Dawn and Scientology are very different," she adds when asked to compare. "Scientology seems to have more cult-like properties, whereas the Valley is quite open to all faiths and notions of spirituality. Some of it may be the inherent Brazilian nature, some of it may be because it was founded by a woman. But dressing up like that every day is bound to inspire a sense of joy and at the same time commitment to the spirituality the clothing represents."

In the film, the strikingly tall Grierson learns how a local spirit, Father White Arrow, instructed young medium Tia Nieva to start the Valley as a place of Planet Capela worship. It is something of a southern hemisphere Shangri-La, with groups of people ridding street corners of negative energies and giggling women stitching together sun-decorated dresses for thinking Doutrinador disciples and moon-themed garb for the more feeling Apara members.

Valley founder Tia Nieva

Best of all, Grierson convinces the locals to make her a special dress of her own, after taking the requisite test to find out which category of medium she best fits into. Much of the charm of The Valley of Dawn comes from the way Grierson playfully reacts to the whole process and takes the dress back with her to the non-spaceship world.

"My dress was a symbolic one," she clarifies. "It was made especially without attaching at the wrists, and did not have the sun and the moon on it. The love was in the dress and that is the message. You do not need to join a religion, you only need to carry love and if you can look fabulous and sparkle with it, even better!"

Grierson is currently in Iceland, where she has begun working with Martina Moor on another girl power doc, I Want to Be Weird. For this one, the adventurous New Zealand born, Australia educated gal will take part in the latest outdoor extravaganza put on in the nordic country by UK ex-pat performance artist Kitty Von-Sometime and her troupe The Weird Girls Project.

Grierson (center), with Nieva's daughter (l) 

"I was not intending to make a 'women's' film with Valley, nor did I plan to make one after," says Grierson. "But discovering the Weird Girls and realizing what I had already gleaned from my experience in the Valley, and how much this idea of spirituality, personal self-expression and celebration go hand in hand, my inspiration to film my journey as a Weird Girl made sense."

"When I first signed up to be Weird, I had no intention of making a film about it," she adds. "The idea just grew as I completed the edit for Valley. I am very excited by making optimistic films that celebrate life - spiritual and artistic freedom. Particularly if it is something as in the case of the Valley, that people may have a preconceived negative opinion about."

The Valley of Dawn was met with enthusiasm last month in New York and is bound to make many more waves as it screens at the Spiritual Film Festival in Idaho and beyond. Grierson says she continues to wear her Valley dress whenever the mood strikes, from parties to the neighborhood supermarket, and looks forward to continuing to share her unique chronicle of South American spirituality.

A colorful, joyful enclave

"Brazil is radically different than what we are used to," she observes. "Belief in spirits is extremely common, and mediums in one form or another are everywhere. Everyone knows someone who has been to see a medium to resolve an issue. When there it becomes normal."

"I have seen, heard and felt things that defy logic, so in that sense, I feel that I have expanded my belief system," Grierson notes. "But I also try to be very grounded within that. I am not interested in changing my name to Flower Rose Petal Stargirl and dropping out, as they said in the 60's. I much prefer the idea of dropping in!"

[The Valley of Dawn, I Want to Be Weird]

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