Lights, Camera, Prayer

Prayer is a human phenomenon that is studied, mocked, analyzed, taught, and studied by believers and unbelievers alike. Every religion of which I am aware has some form of prayer, whether it is a mantra repeated outward to the universe, or words spoken to a personal God who is able to hear the prayers of all people. There is an almost ineradicable urge within us to cry out to something or Someone, especially in the midst of danger or the throes of fear. Scientists have done studies on whether prayer “works,” with predictably ambiguous results. Christians have made movies centered on the “power of prayer.”

I do not think, however, that I have ever seen anything like the German documentary Jesus, You Know (Jesus, Du weisst; 2003, streaming on Kanopy). It is, essentially, a video recording of six people praying in various Austrian Roman Catholic churches, with brief interludes of group prayer (e.g., the Rosary, etc.) or songs. The eyes of the people praying are mostly elevated just over the top of the camera’s view, toward a picture of Jesus or a crucifix, so we feel as if we are sitting right in front of them and observing them as they pray.

They pray for guidance, for their relationships, for advice, for help, for strength. The ages of the film’s subjects range from late teens and early 20s to 50s or 60s, which allows the prayers themselves to range from somewhat naive and innocent to blunt revelations of a person’s inner thoughts and desires. (To take the most obvious example, one woman tells Jesus/the camera that she has poison and she has considered using it against her adulterous husband or herself.) Though it would be easy to smile at their earnestness, to presuppose our own, more sophisticated versions of either religion or prayer, their sincerity is affecting. Are we, in fact, more sophisticated in our religious observance? What would our prayers sound like if we spoke them audibly in the presence of (to?) a camera?

As far as the film itself goes, that is the most interesting question: how much of this is for the camera? They all know they are being filmed, and while their questions and emotions appear genuine, it is impossible for the camera not to affect, even if subtly, the content or tone or form of their prayers. If even the Spirit intercedes for us with un-speakable groans, when we ourselves do not know how to pray as we ought, the knowledge that one is being recorded in order for the film to be shown publicly must change our inarticulate prayers into somewhat complete sentences.

Perhaps something of the same would go for prayer as part of a scientific study, or even for prayer in a group setting. We know that others are listening, or watching, and that necessarily adjusts what we might say. I suppose there may be some who can pray in a public setting in the same way they would pray privately, but they are likely few.

That means that this is a documentary not so much about prayer as it is about these particular people praying. We get definite insights into these particular people’s lives via their prayers, but the intangible aspects of prayer remain intangible and unobserved. In ways similar to other evidence of God or religious experience, some will point to the effects of prayer in their lives, and others will claim that they were not answered or heard, and that their experience was one of speaking out loud to themselves.

It is slightly unsettling to watch the people praying from the film’s relatively intimate vantage point. And however the camera or the knowledge of the documentary affected the people’s articulation of their prayers, the result is interesting. The only thing that is missing for me is some sort of follow-up interviews with the people in the film. What was the experience like? How do they feel about their filmed prayers now? In what ways did they find help, or not, according to what they expected or desired? At the very least, Jesus, You Know sparks questions about prayer in general, and questions about our own prayers in particular.