The story behind ONE sounds like a Hollywood fairy tale: A group of friends get together and decide to put on a show. They pool their resources. Despite the longest of long-shot odds—these eager first timers produce a hit!
That is, indeed, the true story of ONE, although the feature-length documentary isn’t exactly an overnight sensation. A decade ago, Ward and Diane Powers were typical American parents, active in their local Catholic church, when the terrorist attacks hit on 9/11. As ordinary residents of a Midwest community, the Powers thought and prayed a lot about how they could teach their three daughters not to fear the world’s diversity. The Powers knew that the world’s varied religious traditions—at their best—promote a unified call for compassion even in the midst of diversity. Rather than contributing to the overall post-9/11 anxiety, the Powers wanted to help highlight that compassionate message.
Much like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney putting on a makeshift Hollywood show, Diane and Ward enlisted their friends in their ambitious project. When they began, they didn’t even own a quality video camera. They were not journalists—they weren’t even writers. They had no experience contacting major religious leaders. Yet, they began making a list of people who ordinary American parents would want to question at such a turbulent time in world history.
Now, after years of barnstorming through film festivals and indie screenings, Oprah is announcing that ONE will air on her OWN network. Later this year, the whole world will see the Powers’ show.
And, what a show it is! Moved by these parents’ sincere request, one major religious figure after another agreed to appear in the film. Now, even as ONE hits a global audience thanks to Oprah, the documentary already has become a cinematic classic—marking wisdom at the dawn of this new millennium from some of the world’s most famous religious sages (some of whom sadly won’t be with us that much longer).
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm, as a long-time religion news correspondent, has been covering the ONE story since its inception. Today, David talks with the small-town lawyer and father of three, Ward Powers, who became one of the world’s most unlikely filmmakers.
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
ON THE OPRAH ANNOUNCEMENT
ABOUT THE SPIRITUAL MOVIE: ONE
DAVID: Today, there are millions of filmmakers on YouTube. (And in Part 1 of our coverage of ONE this week, we include several YouTube clips that are out-takes from the movie.) So, let’s begin by stressing that ONE isn’t just another YouTube creation. This is a high-quality, feature-length documentary that took you a couple of years to produce. So, this leads to another question: How old are your kids, now?
WARD: Let’s see. I’m 54. Diane is 52. Our daughters are 17 to 21. When this started they were little kids and we were thinking about what we needed to show them about the world just after 9/11. Now, one daughter is in law school. As a family, we do mark time in relation to ONE. You know, we’ll be trying to place events through the years and we’ll say: This happened or that happened just after we finished ONE.
The whole story began in April of 2002, about six months after 9/11, when war drums were pounding in the campaign to attack Iraq, which our country finally did in early 2003. So, as the idea for ONE came to me, the tragedy of 9/11 already was leading toward another tragedy.
I was really disturbed that, right after 9/11, Americans were being taught that there were a billion Muslims around the world who we were supposed to fear or even to hate. Diane and I realized that this was contrary to the reality of life on this planet. Humanity is an interconnected web. All living things are one. That was a truth we held very close, but we could feel that truth moving away from us in that really fearful time. We were just a Mom and a Dad living in suburban Detroit. But, what we saw going on in our world called us out of our comfortable home. We kept asking ourselves: How can we create something that will focus much needed light back on the truth? And that truth is, as our title says: In this world, we are—ONE.
That April, there was this one particular morning—quite early that morning. I was kind of half awake in bed and my mind was drifting. The idea came to me: We should set off on a journey with our friends and make a movie. For us, it would be a personal journey.
DAVID: When people watch the opening of ONE, they’ll see a generic man waking up in a generic hotel room. Does that represent the morning when you woke up with this idea?
WARD: No, it’s not that specific a reference to my waking up with the idea. But, I can also say: Yes, this is a guy like everyone, you know, waking up in bed and looking for a fresh start in life. This particular nameless character we see is staying in a dumpy hotel room, waking up with some kind of unnamed troubles in his life. And, we see him start his day. We’re trying to encourage everyone to wake up and head out with us on this journey of awareness. And, I should say: This movie isn’t some big crusade to convert anyone to any particular religious tradition. This is a personal call to viewers to get up, start a new day, and take a fresh journey to discover the world’s underlying truths.
ONE, THE MOVIE: COVERING ALL COMPASS POINTS
DAVID: That is an important aspect of ONE, Ward. We do see an incredible diversity in this film. You’ve got pretty much all the compass points covered.
WARD: For example, a group of atheists were having a picnic for the summer solstice. So we went out and filmed interviews with some of the atheists. About the same time, we interviewed a Christian talk show host. We talked with all points of view. This project wasn’t about us picking and choosing a particular point of view that we were pushing. No, we wanted to capture the whole range of humanity.
This turned out to be the right decision on many levels. When we were interviewing the atheists, we ran into a reporter who was writing a story for a Detroit newspaper. He was fascinated by what we were doing and wrote a story about us. When that appeared, it opened up a whole new range of possibilities. Suddenly, people were aware of what we were doing; we were authentic at that point and the project grew. One day, there was this young guy who just showed up at the front door of my offices. He told me that he had read the newspaper story about the film and he was carrying this book by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee. He said, “You’ve got to include Llewellyn in your movie.” Now, at that point, I’d never even heard of Llewellyn, but this young guy made a strong case for our including him. The connections flowed like that: We were at a picnic, there was a reporter, there was a story, there was a kid at the door, there was Llewellyn. That was the magic of how the doors opened.
ONE, THE MOVIE: A UNIQUE SPIRITUAL SNAPSHOT
DAVID: And ReadTheSpirit has just published a fresh interview with Llewellyn. Your film is unique because it includes so many giants: Father Thomas Keating, Robert Thurman, Thich Nhat Hanh, Ram Dass and others who won’t be with us forever. These are major voices who are speaking for themselves in this film—not their followers or some scholar talking about them—but the real Keating, Thurman, Ram Dass and Thich Nhat Hanh. Figures like Keating, Thurman and Ram Dass go back to the explosion of religious diversity in America from the 1960s into the 1970s. This film still is fresh and inspiring to new viewers. But, already ONE is a must-see classic that captures a particular range of great voices in American faith, culture and history. I don’t think anyone could duplicate this treasure.
WARD: It takes the background of someone like you to appreciate this about ONE. It’s true: These voices all have unique things to tell us. Yet, they somehow all come together here in ONE. It helped that we were keeping our own orientations out of what we were filming. We looked East and West. We looked for traditional religious language and more contemporary language. But this idea of ONE-ness permeates all of these voices. We opened up a welcoming space where all of these voices felt comfortable sharing their perspectives.
DAVID: At ReadTheSpirit, we value journalism—accuracy, balance and the goal of conveying someone’s voice honestly to our audience. That kind of balance is part of the value of ONE. You’re not a religious leader. In fact, you’re an attorney. You’re trained in critical-thinking skills; you’re schooled in techniques of careful observation through your profession. Do you think that your professional background help you?
WARD: Yes, I think it did. In fact, after ONE was finished, I wound up traveling and speaking at a number of bar associations around the country. We tend to think of trial lawyers, which is my own specialty, as people who are pitted against each other as advocates for their one side against another side. By showing ONE and talking about it with other lawyers, I was able to address my own profession and say: Let’s look at what we do again. The reality of what we do, beyond beating somebody on the other side, is to serve justice. And justice is something bigger than winning. The law is intended to give people a language and a place to breach their differences and to work out and compromise and resolve their differences. The goal of law is to find justice and balance again. After those bar association programs, I had some remarkable and rewarding responses from trial lawyers. We all need to realize that we’re part of something bigger.
ONE, THE MOVIE: VALUE OF CULTURAL COMPETENCY
DAVID: This is a really important point: There are strong secular and civic reasons to see a film like ONE. Let me give you an example from another colleague: Stuart Matlins of the SkyLight Paths publishing house has found that a book he publishes, How to Be a Perfect Stranger, is popular among professionals in international business. “Cultural competency” is a hot skill set to develop right now.
WARD: A lot of people have started using the film in that way. For example, there was one banking professional who began using the film with his professional colleagues. Later, for a while, he worked out of my offices, designing some educational programs using clips from ONE for different audiences: high school and college students, executives, corporate groups embarking on tasks together. That’s an amazing outgrowth of ONE.
DAVID: There are many professional groups interested in this information: medical personnel, public safety officers, on and on. In this film you have authentic, high-level voices from the world’s religious traditions. In ONE, viewers are getting the real deal.
WARD: Quite honestly, I like ONE more now than when it first came out. As I have seen it stand the test of time, I am appreciating the larger value of the film. I do keep seeing new connections. That’s partly because the world keeps turning and news keeps coming out about people and ideas related to ONE.
Another reason it’s so valuable is this isn’t one more message about how to make a fast buck, how to get what I want, how to get more stuff for myself. That idea of success and personal satisfaction—dream your own dream and grab your own success—is very popular in Western culture. I understand the appeal, but that idea has its limitations.
DAVID: ONE was born out of post 9/11 anxieties, but flash forward to this current era of global economic crisis. People around the world are realizing that, even though they may live in a developed country, their lot in life isn’t going to be better than their parents’ generation. That’s a huge shift in global anxieties. One limitation of prosperity preaching is that it’s a tough sell in the midst of such a crisis. But, ONE is very appropriate in this era. You’re not offering cheap avenues to personal success through spirituality. ONE is talking about ideas that might actually help us in these troubled times.
WARD: I’m glad you said that. Yes, ONE is about finding our way back together again in this divided world. The movie starts with this down-and-out guy waking up in his bed and wondering what this new day holds. ONE is about the catalysts that can shake us out of our own individual corners. The whole idea of ONE is to offer a place where what seems so divisive in our world—our religious voices—can offer a gateway back to unity. That’s why ONE remains so powerful. There are things in that film that I could never have dreamed would be relevant with each passing year. But, ONE takes people wherever they’re at today—and it talks to them about some big truths they may have been missing in their lives. This film touches people in new ways with each new viewing. That’s why this whole journey has been so magical.
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Originally published at readthespirit.com, an online magazine covering religion and cultural diversity.