Dark Devotion: Student Film Delves Into Religious Dogma

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In his upcoming debut feature film, Lavender Rocks, Ohio University graduate student Bilal Sami uses a post-apocalyptic cult as a tool to explore religious extremism, family conflicts, and rituals at large.

At the center of the story is Mara, a girl played by OU Theater student Glenna Brucken, groomed to take charge of the dystopian cult she lives in. In the days leading up to her coming-of-age ritual, Mara unearths dark truths about her community and begins to question the religion her parents helped create.

The film is named for the ceremonial rocks Mara’s group uses, which represent the competing religious and political forces in the film, Sami says. He deliberately set the story after an apocalypse to steer the audience from aligning the cult featured in the film to any of the world’s major religions today.

Growing up in a moderate Muslim home in Pakistan, Sami always has been intrigued with religious rituals and dogma. He says he aims to shed light on the conforming power of rituals of today.

“When people leave (the film), I’d like them to step back and think about these rituals in general,” he said. “Every religion does some ugly things. Instead of showing what they all do, I thought I would show simply that any religion can have these negative parts.”

Sami, a software engineer by trade, had held several jobs in the Pakistani television industry, from acting to writing to directing. At 33, he decided to apply for a Fulbright grant to study the bits and pieces about film that he had missed along the way.

Now a third-year film student, Sami is finishing Lavender Rocks with the help of a Student Enhancement Award and independent funding to round out his master’s degree.

Few film students in the director sequences endeavor a full-length feature; most opt for shorts. He says the Fulbright committee “serendipitously” paired him with Ohio University, in an area replete with talent and opportunity for making films.

“One big advantage here is that it’s so much cheaper to make a movie than, say, in New York,” he said. “A grant or a donation from the internet goes a lot farther here than it would elsewhere.”

To keep the movie on a shoestring budget, Sami started pre-production in the fall and finished principal photography at the end of 2011. The post-apocalyptic feel of the film led him to rent out an abandoned school in nearby Stewart, Ohio, and furnish costumes from the OU Theater department for cheap.

Lavender Rocks is currently in post-production. Sami is putting in more than 40 hours a week editing, pinning down sound, and working with composers for the score. Ultimately, he hopes to have it ready by the end of summer to submit for next year’s festival season. After that? Distribution and returning to Pakistan to launch his film career.

“Getting a company to distribute the movie would just be an unbelievably huge boon,” he says. “Even though the chances are small, one always hopes that one’s work, and hence one’s point of view and message, will gain as large an audience as possible.”

This article will appear in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers Ohio University research, scholarship, and creative activity.