Category Archives: Neoplatonism

“Spiritual Human” Interview with Antony Thomas

“Film-maker Antony Thomas has won recognition and acclaim throughout the world for his powerful and thought-provoking programmes. Born in Calcutta, Thomas was taken to South Africa when he was six years old. He moved to England in 1967, where he has written, directed and produced 40 major documentaries and dramas. He is also author of a highly-acclaimed biography Rhodes, the Race for Africa. Thomas’s films have taken the top prizes at numerous documentary festivals, including the most prestigious — the US Emmy Award, the George Foster Peabody Award, the British Academy Award and the Grierson Award for best British Documentary. Two of his documentaries, Twins – The Divided Self and Man and Animal won fourteen international awards between them.

Thomas has succeeded in creating programmes with a strong message that are also highly popular. The opening programme of his 1998 series on obesity, Fat, won three awards from the British Medical Association and was also one of the ten most popular programmes of the week in the UK, with an audience of 9.5 million. When his drama Death of a Princess was originally shown in the United States, it earned one of the highest ratings in the history of PBS, while his 2004 programmes on the Ancient Greek Olympics were sold to 83 countries.

In 2007, his documentary, The Tank Man, was invited for special screenings at the US AGM of Amnesty International and the United States Congress.

His recent work includes a two-hour documentary on The Qur’an (co-produced by Channel 4 and National Geographic) which premiered in the UK on July 14th 2008, and has subsequently been seen in 32 counties; How do you know God exists? which premiered in the UK on August 16th 2009 and For Neda, a documentary special for HBO, which tells story of Neda Agha Soltan…” (For more on the work of Antony Thomas please visit his website http://www.antonythomas.co.uk/ )

Sincere thanks to Antony Thomas for agreeing to this interview.

Musa Askari: As a documentary film-maker you have talked about having “no idea where the beginning, middle and end of the programme is”. I would like to inquire however about another “beginning”. A beginning of questions formulated through your reflections. Questions which perhaps first attract you to a project as like standing at the circumference of a dimly outlined circle with new questions coming to light during the spontaneity of filming as you traverse various radii toward the centre or heart of the piece.

Whenever you undertake a project would it be fair to say it is generally governed by a set of key questions? Also could you please talk a little about how such initial questions of inquiry are arrived at and to what extent you rely upon your instinct and intuition for guidance through the project?

Antony Thomas: Yes. It is fair to say that my work is governed by a set of questions – in some cases a single question.  “How do you know that God exists?”  “What does the Qur’an actually say?” – to mention two of my more recent films. 

What matters most to me is research in depth. “Instinct and intuition” may help to guide one to the right people and the most relevant source material, but the principle aim is to discover as many perspectives as you can on the subject you have decided to tackle, and that has to take place before any filming starts.

Musa Askari: I would like ask about your inner “experience” on the craft of editing. You have talked about there being a period of reflection before the actual editing commences. That “something very strange happens” and eventually the “whole thing seems to fall in to place”. This I find fascinating and grateful if you could share some insights on the experience of “something strange” and the recognition of things falling in to place.

Antony Thomas: We need to distinguish between the two types of programme I’ve been involved on – pure documentary and docudrama.  In the case of the latter, one is following a script.  It’s an inflexible form; the beginning, middle and end are known before you start filming. 

I would never approach “pure documentary” in the same way, because of the danger that one might (consciously or unconsciously) manipulate what is happening in front of the camera so that it fits into the preordained plan.   The decision to film a particular scene or to interview a particular individual should be based on the conviction that they are relevant to the story you are telling, but there are times when the whole experience turns out to be very different from what was anticipated, and one must always be true to that.  

After the filming is over, I generally spend a couple of weeks looking through all the material that we’ve shot, and it’s quite extraordinary how clearly the structure starts to emerge – and, of course, it’s a structure based on the truth and not on some pre-ordained plan.

Musa Askari: “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful: he cuts away here, he smoothes there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work.” Plotinus (The Enneads: 1.6.9) 

Plotinus, the father of Neo-Platonism, the mystic-philosopher whose work is soul through and soul, is talking about sculpting as a reference to inner self mastery, a spiritual endeavour. There is on the one hand a sculptor seeking to bring forth a material expression of beauty, and on the other hand a documentary film-maker, in my view, also seeking beauty, perhaps a beauty non-material, not of marble, stone or wood. But rather beauty to be found through heartfelt testimonies of people interviewed, of ideas expressed. In other words a quest for “truth” at the heart of the issue being investigated is a beautiful quest. That “truth” in essence is beautiful but also enlightening, liberating and awakening.

As a principle would you agree that sculptor and film-maker have a common bond in the pursuit of “Beauty”? And in general to what extent would you consider editing akin to the art of sculpting?

Antony Thomas: I have to be very frank about this.  I don’t think I’ve ever spoken to a sculptor, or seen a sculptor at work, so I’m not really equipped to answer that question.

Musa Askari: Through your work on “Death of a Princess” (1980), “The Tank Man” (2006) and most recently “For Neda” (2010) these appear to be, apart from the social and political context, powerful representations of individual lives. In your opening sequence to “The Tank Man” for example we are presented with images on the vastness of Tiananmen Square and you comment about “treeless spaces” and “monumental buildings“. As we survey these images of the square your narration talks about, “the insignificance of the individual before the might of the state.”

Could you please talk a little on what you find compelling about individual lives which are caught up within great currents of society and state?

Antony Thomas: As you know, most of my documentaries have strong political or religious themes, but I am not the slightest bit interested in theory and dogma.  What matters to me are the practical outcomes. I want to the viewer to feel what it’s really like to be living under this or that system.  I don’t want to be up there on podium listening to the Head of State or the Pope, I want to be down on the ground floor of ordinary human experience.   

The reviews that make me happiest are those that suggest that this method is working, like this one, in response to a documentary I made in Egypt some time ago:  “I have seen many documentaries telling me what it was like to be in Egypt, yet this was the first one to spell out, both beautifully and brutally, what it felt like to be an Egyptian.” 

Musa Askari: I find the liberating power of the individual no better expressed in your work than in “The Tank Man”. A lone man standing in the middle of a boulevard, straight, still and defiant. No weapon, just his individuality. It is seems remarkable to me with so much violence having taken place already, so many individual un-armed lives already brutalised the night before on June 4th 1989, why the driver of the lead tank halted at all. What transpired between those two as they stared at each other we may never know. As we witness the bravery of one man standing before the lead tank, an image which has become an icon of freedom, we are also witnessing the actions of another man who is hidden from view. Namely, the driver of the lead tank. Enfolded within the machinery of military power, represented by a tank, the individual is not only insignificant (recalling your quote earlier) but also absent. Yet here in this event, in this image, the individual is unmasked for all to see in the clear light of a noon sun confronting symbolically a state power and in doing so invites the driver of the lead tank, for a few minutes, to become an individual also.

Would you agree perhaps there were two “Tank Men” that day in Tiananmen Square? And I would be grateful for your thoughts on when you first saw the footage of this anonymous individual making a brave and selfless stand.

Antony Thomas: Yes. I certainly remember the powerful emotions I felt when I first saw that image of a young man, standing in front of that column of tanks, and I completely agree with the point you make.  There were two heroes that day – one unseen inside the lead tank, and one standing in the road with his back to us.  I’m afraid it’s likely that both of them shared the same fate.

Musa Askari: I note your interest in religion, through works such as “Thy Kingdom Come” (1987), “The Quran” (2008) and more recently “How Do You Know That God Exists?” (2009), and present the following quotes from my late father whose work and reputation I understand you are familiar with.

“The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html

“It was Brumana consultation in 1972 in Beirut the biggest Christian – Muslim consultation of the century, that in my paper I made it absolutely clear that perhaps, perhaps we need more than one religion. How could one dare to equate the Almighty Unity and Transcendence and Mystery with the form of one faith and practice?” (Professor Syed Hasan Askari: speech on Spiritual Humanism, 1995 https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/speech-hasan-askari-spiritual-humanism/

Through your work, research and study of religion could you please talk about your observations when an exclusive one-sided approach to religious witness is taken at the expense of the universal and inclusive? And to what extent do you think the direction of inter-religious dialogue has changed or stayed the same since your interest in religion and inter-faith began?

Antony Thomas: I agree with every word that you have quoted from your father’s writings. The tension and violence, not only between people of different faiths, but between co-religionists is one of the greatest tragedies of our time.   

I know many wonderful people who are trying to reach out across these divisions, but in spite of all their efforts, it seems to me that the problem is more serious now that at any other time in my life.

Let Forgotten Memories Unfurl by Musa Askari

What is the moment?

When buds turn to flower

When clouds release a shower

When winter releases from its heart spring

Do you ever wonder at such things? 

Have you ever wondered

Why you are here?

And cried a silent secret tear

Have you ever wondered

From where did you begin?

Which mother’s milk did you abandon never tasting? 

Even though you may be trapped and bound

By this world that has let you down

Where are those first footprints to be found? 

Look not for them

In your earliest childhood days of this world

Continue Beyond

Let forgotten memories unfurl.

It was in March 1993 I put together the words as above. I was in my early twenties. It was a time of continued inner expansion. Many things were becoming clear on the direction my life may take. I was not only reading Plotinus (The Enneads) but also hearing my father, Hasan Askari, talk about the great mystic-philosopher, considered the father of Neo-Platonism, who is Soul through and through. I returned again and again to my father’s book “Alone to Alone” which had been published a few years earlier and new meanings came to light. The expansion I refer to was centred about one word, “Soul”: that impartible, invisible, indivisible companion of our self, both one and many at the same time. 

I learned of Plotinus’s term for the Supreme, The One – The Good. I heard about his system which referred to “emanation”. That from The One, who is above all association, emanates The Intellectual Principle, from which comes The Universal Soul and then The Individual Soul. I heard about such terms as conjoint; association of Soul with Body, with Matter. One of the most beautiful things I recall, ever-fresh, was hearing Hasan speak of Plato; that it is not the Soul in Body, but rather it is the Body in Soul. This had a transforming effect upon my thinking, upon my spirituality. It resolved many issues on the relationship between Body and Soul. It opened new doors. And still we had not come yet to ourselves; all this was Soul entire, Soul un-embodied.

It is important I explain a little what I mean by “direction”. I do not mean any worldly direction of occupation or career, of planning one’s life academically or anything of that nature. “Direction” was for me an inner movement which would dictate the outer movements.  I was already a student of my father’s work for many years. The beauty about his manner of teaching lay in that it was never forced. It was simply presented. We engaged in discussion deeply, or I observed him in dialogue with others. I observed him all on his own. And despite many serious challenges in life I witnessed an unfailing dedication to both his work and his inner self-mastery, which was one and the same. It was at moments observing a great artist at work, sculpting, painting or reflecting. 

To see his face light up at the dawn of some new idea or unravelling of some mystery was for me like watching a sun rise above the horizon. The faint advancing light that ushers in the arrival of the actual Sunrise. Ideas used to dawn upon him wherever and whatever he was doing. Either in conversation-encounter with others or all alone sitting in silence. Observing him I was certain of one thing, his mind was never far from the remembrance and praise of God.  One of the greatest lessons I was taught by him was to seek the company of solitude. To seek out time for oneself during the course of the day, to think and reflect, to be still, to pray, to remember The Supreme. It was as if one could spend an entire life time in that silence. The days could have come and gone, the seasons passing as like rushing clouds overhead. The sun could have risen and set countless times, one would never have known. 

Falcon

I developed the habit early on of waking up and being alone in silence with solitude. It was at one such moment I reached for pen paper and the poem “let forgotten memories unfurl” came about. A thought came to me. I put down the first two lines and it went from there. Ideas, images and ideas behind those images were my torch bearers, they guided me and I followed. Within those moments of the night I was seeking some understanding of soul, something, anything. To move from the discursive to the intuitive and spiritual. To lift the words of my teacher from the page and carry them upon my head as an offering for my Soul to pluck me on flight to some deeper understanding. As like an eagle or falcon plucks some morsel of food not forgetting to return to the “Hand” that released it. Talking and hearing about Soul from Hasan I came to notice the world about me more, the physical world, nature for example.

I reflected on the simple beauty of nature and started contemplating another moment within nature. One moment and yet a multitude of moments. The moment when a bud decides to flower, clouds releasing their shower. It was not that I was seeking an exact temporal timeline, that was not the goal. The goal became to ponder and reflect. To imagine oneself just being present at the very moment one particular bud decided to begin its flowering. It was as if the act of observing and flowering were one act but in different forms. To imagine that which called forth the bud to flower was the same which called one to notice it. Symbolically, one of the ways a flowering bud may be understood is akin to our eyes opening from a deep sleep.

The beauty of a bud is further increased when its petals have opened fully, reaching for the sun much like our own physical eyes more beautiful once open and light hits the optic nerve. Can one bear witness to any physical eye being beautiful in the dark? Whilst closed the beauty of our eyes is concealed, but would we deny, even when closed, that the very “Idea” of an eye is a beautiful thing. An “Idea” of beauty by which other beauties are seen, a hierarchy of Beauty, of Ideal Forms, intangible and immaterial. Now we may invoke the adage, “the eyes are the windows to the Soul”. Sometimes both acts, flowering and observing, are mirrors and the original is out of sight, at others one is the mirror and the other is the original standing before it.  It all depends at which point within the hierarchy one is “standing” as Soul. 

There also comes a point to turn the arrow of inquiry from nature to oneself, from outer to inner. To ask deeply, with meaning, with tears, with a yearning like never before, “why am I here?” Again it was not any conclusive answer I was searching. I was not seeking to unveil some crystal ball and peer in to it becoming so disoriented whereby I lost sight of the very thing that brought me to ponder the question. The power was in the question itself. The question was the guide and that I tried to keep intact. 

In coming back to Soul, on this poem, another idea came to me. Namely, above our memory, a timeline from birth to the present moment. Above all the experiences, all relationships, above all these memories, tragic and joyous, above even our dreams, there is another memory. A more Ancient Memory, that of Soul. Embedded within that memory is a “Call”, a Command almost. A beckoning for the Soul to turn its gaze from looking down at what it has created, forgetting its priors and thus forgetting its own inner memory. A “Call” to become free of being infatuated by its own beauty and seek the home of that Light which shines within it. The Home of Beauty, that from which Beauty emanates.  To look up, as it were, to its Source. Within the Islamic tradition there is a beautiful way of recalling this memory when The Quran reminds, “We are of God and unto God we return”. In other words one’s Soul is from God and unto God it returns. Quoting Hasan Askari from his 1995 speech on Spiritual Humanism, “our journey ultimately is from soul to God. Pure is your soul, purer is your approach to God”. https://spiritualhuman.wordpress.com/speech-hasan-askari-spiritual-humanism/  

We already accept there is a memory in to which we are born. A memory we have no knowledge of as we are born. It is a memory presented to us as integral to our worldly identity, a pseudo-identity I would say, a garment, a covering.  Memory upon memory which over time distances us from a far more Ancient Memory within the Soul having the potential to distance us from one another. Namely, in general terms, our collective identities of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, culture, language and religion.  Within these collective memories there are indeed gems, hints, clues, great insights, much meaning. However, it depends on how such socio-historic memories are relayed to us. As complete and absolute or temporary and symbolic.  

If we can accept, by example of such collective identities, the principle of a “memory” before our knowing of it, before our birth, then perhaps we may begin to explore another Memory above the ones presented to us here through our individual-collective lives and histories. Through story and art, through encounter and co-presence. Through Soul! Upon meeting another let us pay attention to their story for who knows what buds are beginning to flower and what forgotten memories are beginning to unfurl for both the speaker and listener.  

Originally published in “The Beginning of Fearlessness” c/o Lee & Steven Hager 

Further reading: Plotinus, The Enneads (The Knowing Hypostases): “If the Soul is questioned as to the nature of that Intellectual Principle – the perfect and all-embracing, the primal self-knower – it has but to enter into that Principle, or to sink all its activity into that, and at once it shows itself to be in effective possession of those priors whose memory it never lost: “

The Grand Canyon

By Hasan Askari from his book “Alone to Alone – From Awareness to Vision”

As he stood before the Grand Canyon, he was told by one of the guides that he was facing two billion years of rock. “Two billion years and one minute”, he said. The guide looked perplexed. “That one minute just included us standing right before the canyon”, he explained. But a voice older than the canyon seemed to reach him, saying: “You are not recalling another minute before the canyon was formed”. He remembered then he was more ancient than the Grand Canyon.

Within a split second or even less he was standing before the house of Porphyry in distant Sicily. It was late afternoon in one of the last years of the third century. As he approached the house, he could see Marcella, Porphyry’s wife, sitting in one of the windows looking towards the small pathway he was climbing to reach the house. She waved her hand. It looked like a white bird rising a little from the branch of a tree and settling down again. She opened the door, and with her usual calm led him into the house. She was holding a file of papers. As she sat down, she said, “Porphyry is in Rome one some business. He will be back within a couple of weeks. This is his letter. I think I should share it with you.” She handed over the letter to him. He started reading while she got up to prepare something for him to eat.

As he started reading the letter, he knew with tears in his heart that though there were several knowers, knowledge was one: “If we were just a body, one in Sicily and another in Rome, you are far away from me, and I very much yearn to return as soon as possible. But I know, as you also know, that we are more than a body, and therefore I am with you and you are with me”.

Marcella sat down after passing on to him a plate with some bread and cheese. “Are you alright?” she asked. He looked at her wondering how much she was aware of his distress, of his wanderings, of his sorrow. “I should tell you something, my friend”, she spoke with affection, “you will be on this earth again a few hundred years hence, and after many years of quest you will fall in love with the teaching of Porphyry’s Master”. He waited. She continued: “Philosophy and Prophecy will unite once again. But you must not waste that opportunity.”

She appeared then as the High Priestess of the second card of Tarot. “Do not concern yourself with how I appear to you,” she had already read his mind, “Let me tell you that you appear sometimes as the Magician, the Hanged Man, and the Fool all at once.” He could not control his tears. She took his hands and held them gently and her eyes were on the ground. A strange light shone on her face. The sun was setting on the sea. A cool breeze was blowing.

He asked, “What will be that time upon the earth?” She did not reply.

From Interreligious Dialogue to Spiritual Humanism

By Professor Hasan Askari

“I have always looked at religious diversity with a sense of wonder. The differences between religious beliefs and practices have never bothered me, nor have their conflicting truth-claims unnerved me. I was mystified by the fact of diversity itself. But the call to tolerate and coexist with the other in mutual respect, however desirable, was not enough for me. The intuition underlying the ancient saying, “the lamps are many but the light is one,” gently led me on to look for a theological affirmation and validation of more than one religion. What was lingering in the depths of my soul came to the surface of my consciousness sometime in the mid-1970s when I clearly realised that transcendental reality could not be equated with any one religious form; otherwise a religion will become a god and that would be utter blasphemy. The prospect of a religion reflecting the Absolute absolutely would turn that religion into the most dogmatic and oppressive belief system imaginable. Hence, there should be room between the religions for mutual critique and complementarity. In turn, this should generate a religious need for religious plurality and diversity.”

“Each religious form should then express the beauty and the splendour, and the transcendence and the mystery, of the Supreme One in terms of its own language and culture, framed in its own historicity and reflected in the vision of its pioneers. To enter into dialogue is to celebrate the splendour of the infinitely Supremely Good, in the unity and diversity of our faiths. By the theological affirmation of religious diversity, our coming together in dialogue becomes akin to an act of worship; our exclusive witness is transformed into co-witness; our one-way mission is replaced by mutual mission.”

Continue reading at InterReligious Insight http://www.interreligiousinsight.org/January2004/Jan04Askari.html