The premise may seem ludicrous, that of a modern-day prophet set on his spiritual path by aliens, but Israeli director Yoav Shamir takes his subject seriously, and even questions whether the back stories of more famous prophets (Jesus, Moses et al) aren’t just as fanciful.
For director Yoav Shamir, it all started with an invitation by Raël, head of the Raëlian religious movement, to a meeting in Slovenia where he was presented with an award for his politics. They were, he was told, very much in line with those of his illustrious host.
Not unnaturally, Shamir was happy to receive such an accolade but his journalistic interest was piqued, and he decided to make Raël (original name Claude Vorihon, former racing driver, singer, journalist and now spiritual guru) the subject of a long documentary.
The Raëlian movement was formed after its leader’s alleged encounter with extra-terrestrials in the 1970s, after which he wrote The Book That Tells the Truth. The popularity of this tome, together with guitar-wielding Vorihon’s gentle, amiable and persuasive personality, kickstarted the popular movement, which has since spread across four continents, from Okinawa to Canada.
Raël is, he tells us, an offspring of Yahweh, a member of the Elohim family of deities, and a human mother, and hence can name Jesus as a brother.
“Growing up in Israel, we are surrounded by religion the whole time,” comments director Shamir of his fascination for Raël and the opportunity he presented in doc terms. “Jesus was born here and Mohammed took a trip from Jerusalem to Saudi Arabia on a horse, and Moses and the other prophets are from here too. I was always intrigued by this… Then up pops this opportunity – it was something that felt right.”
On the face of it, Raël’s offer to the world isn’t at all threatening. He seems benevolent and wears a beatific smile on his face most of the time. Nobody seems to have been cajoled into following him, and personal happiness, he says, is the raison d’être of his outfit. Organised religion, he points out to a pair of passing Mormons, is the root of much of the world’s misery. What’s more, the prophet likes to perform and dance and obviously has an eye for the ladies, although Shamir offers no evidence that this is a problem within the organisation.
Raël also founded a ‘Pleasure Hospital’ in Burkina Faso that performs female genital mutilation reversal surgery. “Even if they did it as a PR stunt, this is kind of a big effort,” says director Shamir, who was obviously impressed by the establishment which was run by a woman who went through the procedure herself. “They built a hospital. If it was just PR, they really worked hard for this stunt.” What make the existence of the establishment more surprising is that Burkina Faso is a majority Muslim country.
Raël’s followers all speak of him with a sense of awe and devotion, and even were he to turn out to be a fraud, they would be thankful to him, a number of disciples say towards the documentary’s conclusion.
Even when the director decides to scratch beneath the surface and investigate the prophet’s past and motives, he is left scratching his head, even though he concedes that the likelihood of alien interaction was “zero point zero zero zero one per cent probability”. And then there are the movement’s egregious claims in 2002 that they successfully cloned a human, which prompted a furious and condemnatory response from the global scientific community.
“If he is a crook, if he is a liar, then all the others [prophets] are also liars – or they are telling the truth,” says Shamir. “It’s not fair to treat him differently than I would Moses or Jesus or Buddha. They also have no evidence. Their stories are also very far-fetched, but they have the privilege of having a thousand years of people following them and not being able to question them.”
The eminent Professor Daniel Boyarin assesses the Raëlian case and sees a generally happy congregation. “The contents, practices, emotions, experiences, beliefs that we call religion can be a very significant part of having a sense that life is rich, exciting, worthwhile,” he advises.
Shamir adds: “For me this film was more than anything an opportunity. Maybe through this story, which is kind of ridiculous, far-fetched, fantastic, hilarious, whatever you want to call it, maybe this story will make you doubt your own beliefs, maybe question your own system of beliefs, your own founding stories. That was my overall type of goal with this film.”
“Who knows, maybe Jesus or Moses or any other prophet you like, maybe they were horny, or a little bit megalomaniac/egomaniac. Who else would become a prophet?” he ends.