Film review: ScaredSacred

review by Jonathan Lawson, Yes! Magazine

"Breathe in suffering, breathe out compassion." This instruction from the Buddhist Tonglen meditation practice serves as a kind of guiding principle for Velcrow Ripper's extraordinary new documentary ScaredSacred. The film's locations are all places of intense suffering, destruction and fear; the most challenging places in the world to look for hope and beauty. The film's search for the "ground zeros of the world" takes us to Bhopal, Israel and Palestine, Sarajevo, Kabul, Hiroshima and the killing fields of Cambodia.

Director and narrator Ripper unearths ways in which witnesses and survivors of unspeakable tragedy have been transformed by their experiences, grounding the film in extended interviews with remarkable individuals: Zoelya, a young leader with the Revolutionary Afghan Women's Association, whose mother was killed by the Taliban; Sensei Enkyo O'Hara, an American Zen teacher in Manhattan opening herself to the fear and confusion of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Thankfully, the film is also a real pleasure to watch; its gorgeous images and evocative sound design helped ScaredSacred win a series of prestigious film awards in Canada, including the Genie award for best documentary. In beautifully shot sequences, we see Afghani children playing in the wreckage of a bombed-out cinema, and Japanese Buddha statues being ritually bathed by devotees.

Ripper, who describes himself as a "Sufi Buddhist Baha'i," presents his subjects in various cultural and religious settings with a sense of engaged solidarity, avoiding both dogmatism and the gratuitous critical distance that plagues many world-religion documentaries.

By seeking out stories of possibility and compassion in these landscapes disrupted by war and disaster, Ripper affirms powerfully that even in times of intense, sustained trauma (perhaps especially in such moments) there remains the possibility for great moral action.

The US DVD release of ScaredSacred (Zeitgeist Video) includes a half-hour guided Tonglen meditation. Ripper's forthcoming film FierceLight, the second in a projected trilogy, will explore sacred activism around the world; follow the film's progress through Ripper's blog and podcast at

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