Filmmakers explore diversity of spiritual life in Los Angeles


For a new documentary, filmmakers Jennifer Jessum and Simon Joseph gained access to the holy ceremonies of more than 40 devotional communities, including Bahai, Hare Krishna, Gnostic Christians and followers of Amma, the Indian guru known as the “hugging saint.”

FOR THE RECORD: A June 12 Beliefs article in LATExtra about a documentary on religious communities in L.A. referred to the Central Community Church of the Nazarene. The correct name of the church is the Central City Community Church of the Nazarene.

The result, “Finding God in the City of Angels,” is a colorful portrait of Los Angeles as almost certainly the most spiritually diverse place on the globe.

“We barely scratched the surface and we shot over 250 hours of film and interviewed 120 people,” Jessum said. “It really is a whirlwind journey through the faith traditions of Los Angeles.”

For example, the film shows Tongva-Gabrielino Indians in their sacred Ti’at plank canoe. Other scenes show Orthodox Jews on Venice Beach, Islamic dancers of the mystic Sufi tradition and the Central Community Church of the Nazarene’s work with homeless people on skid row.

Jessum and Joseph also profile a host of lesser-known faiths and newer or alternative groups that have devotees here. The disparate sects are viewed through the prism of scriptural traditions that define their beliefs — as well as the role of Los Angeles in fostering such an eclectic mix of spiritual practices.

“Los Angeles is home to so many new religious movements. There is a sense of freedom in the West and a history of experimentation and trying new things,” said Joseph, Jessum’s creative partner and husband of 19 years.

Jessum, 42, is a dancer and choreographer with master’s degrees in film from New York University and USC. Joseph, 44, earned his doctorate from Claremont Graduate University’s School of Religion.

When the university’s Institute for Signifying Scriptures commissioned Jessum and Joseph to make a film about Los Angeles through the lens of Scripture, the definition of the word quickly expanded beyond written texts such as the Bible, Torah and Koran to anything that gave a community a sense of meaning or guidance.

Native communities, for example, have an oral rather than written tradition and were wary of the term “scripture,” Joseph said.

“The land is our text,” Cindi Alvitre, of the Tongva-Gabrielino Nation, says in the film. Others interviewed saythey view yoga postures, or the inner self, or one’s life path as equivalent to scripture. For Ava Park, a priestess of the Goddess Temple of Orange County, the female of the species holds the key to understanding. “The original text is woman’s body, not any book,” she says.

Although Jessum and Joseph were born and raised in Los Angeles, they say they were amazed at the number and variety of faiths they encountered once they started their research.

“You can have an intensely materialistic city and still people need a spiritual life,” Jessum said. “That duality exists here. It’s both a reaction to that [materialism] and also due to the diversity of Los Angeles.”

At just one outlet — the Bodhi Tree metaphysical bookstore, founded in 1970 — more than 800 spiritual subject areas are represented, from psychics to Buddhist lamas.

“If you took the whole country and tilted it up, all the weird stuff drained into one place, it drained into Los Angeles,” Bodhi Tree co-founder Stan Madson, paraphrasing social critic H.L. Mencken, says in the film.

Why is Los Angeles so rich in spiritual pursuits?

It’s partly the beauty of the mountains, ocean and sunshine, say the filmmakers, and because the same forces that make the city a magnet for creative people have made it a magnet for spiritual seekers.

“The great natural beauty inspires so many artists and creative people. Where does that creativity and inspiration come from?” Jessum said. “Art comes from the same place. We just call it something different in our modern world. It’s inspiration.”

Jessum said it was important to let the groups speak for themselves, without imposing any agenda, and yet she found that a unity of philosophies emerged from all the different approaches — even from an atheist group.

“They had different names to identify things, but they were saying the same thing,” she said. “Everybody had something about being good to other people. What was different is so much smaller than what was the same.”

“We human beings share a common social condition,” added Joseph, who brought his anthropological perspective to the research.

Still, the filmmakers are careful to emphasize what makes each group unique, which they achieve by highlighting the distinct creative expressions — song, dance and ritual. “It was a tightrope to walk between diversity and unity,” Joseph said.

“Finding God in the City of Angels” was completed this spring and will premiere on the film festival circuit this summer before becoming available for wider distribution.

Now Jessum and Joseph are completing work on another major project, “Holy Man,” about the controversial imprisonment of the late Douglas White, a medicine man of South Dakota’s Lakota Sioux tribe. Actor Martin Sheen narrates the documentary.