Review of the Movie What Do You Believe Now?
by Laurette Folk
It is evident in the movie What Do You Believe (2002) and its sequel What Do You Believe Now (2019) that all six of the individuals interviewed are independent thinkers who can articulate their own needs and the impact religion has in their lives. This level of mindfulness will increase the probability of making good choices for oneself and for society, and it’s comforting to know that we as a society are evolving such that self-awareness can be achieved at a relatively early age. The fact that this sense of conviction continues for these young men and women even after the props of youth fall away, after the world in all its brokenness, sorrow, and disgrace presents itself, is especially heartening.
At seventeen, Anthony Valdez is entrenched in the Catholic Church. He helps serve Mass as an altar boy and attends a Catholic high school. He’s handsome and confident, but conflicted. Like many Catholics, he is constantly aware of where he’s at and where he should be. “I don’t feel as close to God as I should be,” he tells the camera, and “we’re supposed to see Jesus in each other.” As entrenched as he is, however, he can say with certainty that the Catholic Church is “outdated,” especially in regards to sex, and how God isn’t a priority to teenagers, because it’s hard enough to get to know oneself never mind a higher being. Anthony accepts his shortcomings, is almost boastful of them, and makes a good point. I don’t think I could have made such a statement when I was his age.
Mazouza Assaf was expelled from the eighth grade for her rebellious behavior. She tells the camera she was afraid to wear the veil, at first, but when she did, she “became the person she wanted to be.” Mazouza, at seventeen, now feels more comfortable with her head covered, and without Islam, “would be lost in this life.” In her beautiful white veil and dress, she appears ethereal; her face is radiant. She has all the mannerisms of a found person. “I’m the type of person who needed something,” she says. “Not a human.”
There are four other teenagers in this documentary who are as equally self-aware as Anthony and Mazouza: Morgan Green, a Pagan, Carina Vĩnh Liêu, a Buddhist, Julius Not Afraid, a Lakota, and David Present-Thomas, a Jew.
Morgan embraces Paganism, because of the divine equality of the God and Goddess; she says it would be “disturbing to be in a religion where everything is male.” Although Morgan is happy in her religion most of the time, she is sometimes plagued by doubt and says there are moments when she doesn’t believe. Whereas the other religions presented here appear to have communities for fellowship, Morgan seems to be on her own with Paganism: a community or “coven” doesn’t appear to be substantial enough to solidify her practice of ritual and fortify her in moments of doubt.
Carina says that Buddhism is mostly about “cause and effect” and less about destiny. She follows the Buddha, or “the enlightened one,” and aspires to reach a place of “higher mind.” Carina is adamant about Buddha not being a god; he is a teacher, and she seems to be fine with that. Carina’s journey, at this point, seems to be more about self-actualization than anything else.
Julius’s Native American spirituality is similar to Morgan’s Paganism in that the religion is nature based, however his community appears to be active and vibrant with the pow wow tradition. “The drum is the heartbeat of the people,” Julius says. He is proud and protective of the Lakota tradition of generosity, wisdom, respect, and courage. Out of the six individuals interviewed here, Julius is the most devoted. We see Julius drumming with other Lakota, his face portraying the fervor and honor of his ancestors.
Filmmaker Sarah Feinbloom follows each of these young people to school, out with friends, and sits with them at the dinner table. All of these teenagers are honest about their beliefs, the conflicts of their religions with their immediate societies, how their religion is or is not satisfying. They are all millennials, coming of age at the turn of the century when What Do You Believe? was filmed. Although millennials get a bad rap for being irresponsible and lazy, these six seem to be on the path to figuring it all out, even David, who, struggling with his belief in God travels to Israel for answers. Although, like Anthony, he enjoys the aspect of community his religion affords him, unlike Anthony, he became an atheist after two life-altering events: his sister’s suicide attempt and learning about the holocaust. But David takes action against his disbelief, and the WDYB cameras leave him boarding the plane to Israel in search of answers.
In the sequel What Do You Believe Now? filmed seventeen years later, we revisit Anthony, David, Mazouza, Carina, Morgan, and Julius, and their faces no longer beam with the attention the camera gives them. As teenagers, they were confident and fearless, but now, it’s there—the reticence of disillusionment, the fear one inherits after suffering, and at this point, they’ve all had their share of suffering, whether it be addiction, illness, depression, divorce, death of a loved one, existential angst, or the tribulations of coming out.
I found myself thinking about the people in this film the next day, as if I had private conversations with each of them the night before. These films are done seamlessly; we have no hint of Ms. Feinbloom and her crew. Also, kudos to Feinbloom for staying with this project for nearly two decades and capturing on film the disillusionment inherent to coming of age. This is why School Library Journal calls this film “outstanding”: the camera captures what so often goes unnoticed by many—that our society isn’t kind to graduates, to newbies trying to make their way in the world. Overall, there is a lack of mentorship and guidance; once individuals leave academia, there aren’t as many support systems to help them navigate their paths. Sure, religious communities can help, but often they fall short due to their restricting beliefs, as is evidenced here. Films like these not only show common ground where empathy can be achieved, but they also present model individuals who take action and make choices others can learn from.