Isabel Rocamora: Imaging faith

Publication: The Times. 
June 2016

Isabel Rocamora
Imaging faith


Isabel Rocamora has chosen the desert as the setting for Faith, the film triptych which forms the centrepiece of this show

There is a theory that the Abrahamic religions originated in the Judean Desert, because the starkness of the landscape forced greater contemplation of the sky. Isabel Rocamora, originally a performance artist, who currently teaches film-making at Napier University in Edinburgh, has chosen the desert as the setting for Faith, the film triptych which forms the centrepiece of this show.

Here, practitioners of Judaism, Orthodox Christianity and Islam have been filmed in separate locations in the Judean desert, performing morning prayers, in sites that represent a particular significance to their faiths. Michael Cohen is filmed in the Qumran canyon, an archaeological Jewish site. Father Issa Taljieh, a Greek Orthodox priest, is portrayed at Wadi Qelt — the setting of early Christian retreat caves — while Feras Kazaz, a reader at the Al Aqsa Mosque, is located at Nebi Musa, on the pilgrim route to Mecca.

Such details are far from superfluous to an understanding of Rocamora’s approach. In order to make such intimate imagery, she developed a relationship of mutual trust with her subjects. This could be achieved only through personal contacts and introductions, and was a process which took time and patience.

The results are revelatory. For those of us who stand outside the world of such religious practice, what is portrayed is complex and beautiful.

The term triptych is wholly apposite when describing Imaging Faith. Although each of the three elements is self contained, Rocamora has edited these films so that sound and action interrelate. The morning ritual of each celebrant, rooted in past millennia, develops and evolves like an ornate piece of theatre, minutely choreographed. The body, in gesture and supplication, the voice in song and chant, as well as items of clothing and other ‘props’, suggest commonality, despite differences of detail and emphasis. The similarity of attire and physiognomy, suggest that there is much common ground in these religions, and by extension that there is space for mutual tolerance.

In a second room, a series of beautifully composed still photographs, however, underlines the reality of walls, barricades, military presence and division.

A third room provides a space for philosophical, literary and theological contemplation, with various authorities providing examples of texts that underline the causes of conflict and paths towards greater tolerance.

However, the contesting claims of bitterly opposing cultures and religions remains, apparently, an intractable problem, which, at different periods, has come tantalisingly close to resolution.