Hierophany

Directed by Kevin Contento

First-time performers round out the cast of this stunning metaphysical drama, set against the sugarcane fields of Florida. Tempted into stealing a backpack full of rabbits, a young man living on the margins of American society has an unexpected encounter with the divine.


 

Director's Statement

This statement will present several quotes from selected works. These passages, while at times lengthy, are presented in their entirety. Each citation is instrumental to understanding the subject matter, which can be easily misinterpreted.

A hierophany as defined in Mircea Eliade’s The Sacred and the Profane, the Nature of Religion is, “the act of manifestation of the sacred,” i.e. for a Catholic the ultimate hierophany is the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. “In each case (that one calls a hierophany) we are confronted by the same mysterious act—the manifestation of something of a wholly different order, a reality that does not belong to our world, in objects that are an integral part of our natural ‘profane’ world,” (Eliade 11).

The use of the word, sacred, in the previous citation must be addressed. The most accurate definition of the sacred comes to us from the writings of Frithjof Schuon:

"It [the sacred] is the interference of the uncreated in the created, of the eternal in time, of the infinite in space, of the supraformal in forms; it is the mysterious introduction into one realm of existence of a presence which in reality contains and transcends that realm and could cause it to burst asunder in a sort of divine explosion."
Schoun, Language of the Self, p. 106

Now that the sacred has been defined, it’s easy to see what Eliade considers as the profane. It is the opposite of the eternal, that which is contained in time. Evident by the fact that the profane can be corrupted, eventually the profane decays, in its lowest form, it’s the corporeal world.

“[The] sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world, two existential situations assumed by man in the course of his history,” (Eliade 14). Since man is by nature a being in quest of certainty, the sacred has always attracted those with an unquenchable ontological thirst—historically religious man. Homo religious has always strived to live in the presence of the sacred; whether it be sacred space (a church, temple, shrine, etc.) or in sacred time (in the celebration of such histories as Ramadan, Easter, the Sabbath, etc.). The primary function of the sacred is to remind man of his divine origin, it’s a portent that beckons the soul toward spiritual union with the Absolute:

“It is the central urge in every atom, (Often unconscious, often evil, downfallen) To return to its divine source and origin, however distant, Latent the same in subject and in object without one exception.”
A Persian Lesson, Walt Whitman

The modern world has moved away from a metaphysical theology in favor of a rational theology—toward homogenous time and space; in fact homogeneity being a key aspect of modernity and the profane. As an undergraduate I came across the book, Man and Nature: The Spiritual Crisis of Modern Man. In the first chapter the perspicacity of the author’s remarks left a lasting impression:

Today, almost everyone living in the urbanized centers of the Western world feels intuitively a lack of something in life. This is due directly to the creation of an artificial environment from which nature has been excluded to the greatest possible extent. Even the religious man in such circumstances has lost the sense of the spiritual significance of nature. The domain of nature has become a ‘thing’ devoid of meaning, and at the same time the void created by the disappearance of this vital aspect of human existence continues to live within the souls of men and to manifest itself in many ways, sometimes violently and desperately.
Seyyed Hossein Nasr p. 17

While reflecting on this problem and the different modes of existence (sacred and profane); I was eventually led back to primordial man and to that forgotten principial knowledge which lies within the soul. In his book, Knowledge and The Sacred Nasr poses the question; What is metaphysics? Nasr goes on to define it as,

“the primary answer would be the science of the Real or, more specifically, the knowledge by means of which man is able to distinguish between the Real and the illusory and to know things in their essence or as they are, which means ultimately to know them in divinis,” (133).

To speak of metaphysical knowledge has been my goal for the last couple of years. All my studies and understanding of metaphysics have slowly worked their way into my work as a filmmaker and is how Hierophany itself came to be.

I admit that my induction into metaphysics has been arduous and slow, my lifestyle is still yet far away from what many would consider as complementary to the study of the Real. Nevertheless, it’s this innate ontological thirst that drives me and has led me here.

(Getting back to my short film )Therefore it was clear early on that I would write a story built upon this gnostic tradition, set it in the Western world, in a small rural community whose citizens still had a one-to-one relationship with their surroundings.

To use the language of Pier Paolo Pasolini, it’s depicting and understanding the elitist that concerns me. I use the term elitist as Pier understood it. Not as it’s understood in the big cities of the world.

Belle Glades, Pahokee, and Clewiston are three neighboring cities located at the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, approximately 80 miles north of Miami. Historically they all share the same raison d’être, poignantly phrased in Belle Glade’s motto, “Her soil, is her fortune.” With one of the largest sugar corporations just outside of Clewiston, the city became known as “America’s Sweetest Town.” Surrounded by sugar cane, agribusiness has actively isolated these three towns.

Despite this being the information age; replete with super-computers, smart phones, and hydrogen bombs, a town like Belle Glade feels outside that sphere of influence, making it fertile ground when struggling to understand the intangible presence of God. A day in the life of three small town boys, living outside the mainstream of American culture, who spend their winter days hunting rabbits in sugar cane fields thematically made sense in a story concerned with the act of manifestation of the sacred and the eternal quest of returning to the Real. Nature provides the perfect background, because nature has always been the theater of divine activity:

“[The] natural environment, which being created by God is the theater of His Wisdom and Power and contains a sacred presence,” (Nasr 118).

The Sacred, and any knowledge pertaining to it is the fruit of a lifetimes work, but there are those whose inner being is predisposed to its call for “the wind bloweth where it listeth.” How is the sacred expressed? What language does it take?

“The formal language used for the expression of [sacred knowledge], and in fact nearly the whole spectrum of traditional teachings, is that of symbolism,” (Nasr 152).

Therefore my protagonist would have to be a person in whom the symbolist spirit was operative. This gifted individual would not be concerned with the same things that others his age are, i.e. sports, BB guns; instead he is busy contemplating the cosmos as theophany:

“Upon the face of every green leaf is inscribed For the people of perspicacity, the wisdom of the Creator.”
Persian Sufi poem (Nasr 215)

AARON, our hero, is that person, he is on the path to spiritual union and this film documents the very cusp of that journey. Nasr perfectly describes how I envisage Aaron at the end of his life when he writes,

“The spiritual man, whose mind is sanctified by the intellect and whose outward eyes have gained a new light issuing from the eye of the heart, does not even see himself in such a dichotomy. He is always on nature’s side for he sees in her the grand theophany which externalizes all that he is inwardly. He sees in the forms of nature the signatures of the celestial archetypes and in her movements and rhythms the exposition of a metaphysics of the highest order. To such a person nature is at once an aid to spiritual union, for man needs the world in order to transcend it, and a support for the presence of that very reality which lies at once beyond and within her forms created by the hands of the Supreme Artisan. To contemplate the cosmos as theophany is to realize that all manifestation from the One is return to the One, that all separation is union, that all otherness is sameness, that all plenitude is the Void. It is to see God everywhere,” (Nasr 214).

Because this story deals with metaphysics, an inherently hierarchical system; a visual motif of verticality has to be established. The camera will move in a way that connects top to bottom and vice versa. In the traditional mode of existence this is known as the principle of inversion whereby that which is lowest symbolizes that which is highest, “material existence which is the lowest level symbolizes and reflects the Intellect or the archetypal essences which represent the highest level,” (Nasr 267).

In the scene where Aaron first lays eyes on the falcon—he’s sitting with his head lowered (the lowest point in a hierarchical system) he’s then attracted up—where he sees the falcon. Hidden in this imagery is the sign of the Holy Cross, which isn’t revealed until the end because its then that Aaron realizes the Supreme Artisan.

If Aaron is a surrogate for homo religious, then Jimmy and Taylor are surrogates for modern nonreligious man, for whom nature is devoid of meaning:

“Modern nonreligious man assumes a new existential situation; he regards himself solely as the subject and agent of history, and he refuses all appeal to transcendence. In other words, he accepts no model for humanity outside the human condition as it can be seen in the various historical situations. Man makes himself, and he only makes himself completely in proportion as he desacralizes himself and the world. The sacred is the prime obstacle to his freedom,” (Eliade 203).

Since the first draft there was always the element of a bird, specifically a Peregrine Falcon. In the sport of Falconry, which spans every continent, the falcon has its master, the falconer. This relationship and the sport are both echoed in the Muslim world where it’s symbolic imagery has been written about since before the time of Dante Alighieri. In his magisterial work The Divine Comedy, a keen reader can find references to falconry techniques and imagery:

Canto XIX, “Like falcon that emerges from the hood, To turn his head, and clap his wings, and preen His plumes, and show the mettle in his blood,”

Canto XVIII, “The Eternal King spins round with the great wheels. As a falcon, that first gazes at his feet, Turns at the cry and stretches him beyond Where desire draws him thither to his meat...”

Scholars point out that Dante came in contact with falconry while exiled in Italy. At this point falconry and it’s techniques were far more advanced and documented in the Muslim world. Several Sufi poets had chosen the art of taming falcons as the key example for the power of the transmutative art of surrendering oneself to God. In the celebrated poem Manteq al-tayr (Conference of the Birds),

“this process of self-transformation applies in various ways to all species of birds; but when it comes to the falcon, it is the power of the transmutative arts of taming that [the author] evokes as a means of conversion. Such arts should in fact be understood as the earthly manifestation of the Supreme Lord’s transcendental love:”

Rare falcon, welcome!
How long will you be So fiercely jealous of your liberty?
Your lure is love, and when the jess is tied, Submit, and be for ever satisfied.
Give up the intellect for love, and see
In one brief moment all eternity;
Break nature’s frame, be resolute and brave,
Then rest at peace in Unity’s black cave
Rejoice in that close, undisturbed dark air—
The Prophet will be your companion there.

The falcon who dreams of returning to his Master is seeking love and metaphysical knowledge. A return to the Edenic state where God and His creation were in complete union. Union in this case represented by the birds hood — a well known tool in the world of falconry. This story line echoes Aaron’s inner journey, and while the birds journey ends in death, just like Aaron’s journey will one day — I see it as a journey that finally fulfills the extent of terrestrial existence and marks the beginning of an upward ascension back toward the One. Therefore the birds death is one to emulate, and by having this perspective Aaron has begun to shed himself of the illusory.

Terrence Malick, Robert Bresson, Ingmar Bergman, Woody Allen, Lars Von Trier, Andrei Tarkovsky, Bela Tarr, and Apichatpong Weerasethakul. In their own ways, each of these cinematic masters has used the moving image as a means to communicate a spiritual struggle. Throughout Bergman’s canon there is a recurring archetype of homo religious struggling with his faith; a Crusader returning from the Holy Land, a mentally ill woman on vacation, a tortured painter, or a preacher trapped in a snow capped Swedish town; the Bergman conflict is the same. At the end of Through a Glass Darkly (1961), Bergman offers metaphysical knowledge when his character states that love is the ultimate manifestation of both the Lord’s mercy and presence. In the Antichrist, Lars Von Trier tortures a rational theology with the presence of the Devil, a presence that cannot be grasped because of a mental horizon hindered by a theologies emphasis on empirical evidence over all other ways of knowing. Apichatpong’s metaphysical Tropical Malady opens with a quote expressing transcendence through taming oneself. Surrendering to the Eternal beautifully realized in the films ending when a soldier and tiger meet.

Hierophany culminates in a similar realization. Though death is inevitable, religion gives us keys to levels of understanding that put events like death into the framework of the Eternal. Thank you for taking the time to read this statement, though it may have left you with more questions than you began with, it’s my hope that the themes, and visuals will inspire other’s to seek their own answers.


Credits

Writer/Director/Producer | Kevin Contento

Producer | Frank O’Neill

Associate Producer/Assistant Director | Daniel F. Pfeffer

Cinematographer | Chris Blandon

1st Assistant Camera | Olga Nechaeva
2nd Assistant Camera/Grip/Colorist | Claribel Tejeda
Key Grip | Charlie Diserens
Sound Recordist | Michel Arellini
Sound Designer | Aleksandar Rančić
Foley and Sound Effects Editor | Luka Barajevic
Storyboard Artist | Danae Nunez
VFX Artist | Victor Velasco
Animal Wrangler | Steve Hoddy with “Renegade” the Gyr Falcon Production
Designer | Heather Ryan Thomson
Editor | Askeda
Poster Design | Connor Simpson
Production Assistant | Edward Lee
Production Assistant | David Contento
Production Assistant/Still Photographer | Claribel Tejeda
Electrical Pole Designer | Sean Seberg
Carpenter | Ricardo A. Bazauri


About the Team

Kevin Contento - Writer/Director/Producer
Kevin Contento is a Colombian-American filmmaker who grew up in South Florida. A University of Central Florida alumnus, he majored in cinema studies with a minor in philosophy, religion, and popular culture. He earned his MFA in Screenwriting and Directing from the graduate film program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. His thesis film, Hierophany world premiered at the 2018 LA film festival, in 2019 it played at over a dozen festivals including Slamdance in Park City, Utah and a sold-out screening at the prestigious BAM Rose Cinema as part of the Caribbean Film Series. The Conference of the Birds, his debut feature film, continues to explore the theme of divine unity with a cast of Florida teenagers.

Frank O'Neill - Producer
Frank O’Neill is a well-seasoned producer with years of commercial and television experience under his belt. Growing up in the gritty streets of Kingston, Jamaica and the scenic suburban beauty of Atlanta, Georgia has enabled him to have a broad scope on the human experience. His personal drive coupled with his professional dedication has led him to expose and express great stories to be shared with the world. His aim is to produce lasting works of art that will ultimately impact and change the world as we know it.

Daniel F. Pfeffer - Assistant Director/Associate Producer
Daniel Pfeffer is a Mexican-American filmmaker who grew up in Ithaca, New York. He Attended Brooklyn College and NYU Tisch School of the Arts for Film and TV production. After earning his BFA, he went on to work in the film industry under various capacities. Daniel strives to use captivating narrative by creating socially conscious films, which speak to the human condition and to audiences worldwide. He is currently an MFA candidate for Screenwriting and Directing in the graduate film program at Columbia University’s School of the Arts.

Heather Ryan Thomson - Production Designer
Heather Thomson is a stylist and designer from Hilton Head Island, SC. Heather attended Miami International University of Art & Design and graduated with a BFA in Fashion Design. After graduating she started her own styling company in Miami, FL and began working as a wardrobe, prop & set stylist for fashion, film, music and television. Her work is inspired by art, music, vintage fashion and films, and her knowledge of fabrics, construction and proportions allows her to create unique set designs and ontrend wardrobe looks. Her range of styling expertise includes film and television wardrobe, editorial, runway, catalog, prop and set, still life, tabletop, food, interiors, retail windows, and special events. Heather is currently working on designing and manufacturing a women’s clothing line while continuing to expand her styling career.

Steve Hoddy - Master Falconer
Steve Hoddy has been a dedicated wildlife educator and animal trainer for over 30 years. He worked as a field researcher for the United States Fish and Wildlife Service in the study of Peregrine Falcons and found one of the last known California Condor nests in the wild. Steve has worked with, and trained a wide variety of animals from around the world but his passion is Birds of Prey. Steve has practiced the art of Falconry since his early teens and today is a Master Falconer, which is the highest position that can be achieved in this field.

Jean Voltaire - Aaron
Jean was born in Haiti and at the age of three moved to the United States. Jean plays football for the Pahokee Blue Devils at his high school Pahokee High. The first time Jean went rabbit hunting was in 2015. At first he was worried that the rabbits were going to bite him. Hierophany is his debut as an actor.

Wiltavious McKelton - Jimmy
Wiltavious, a.k.a. Boleg, is from Pahokee, Florida. He also plays on the varsity football team of Pahokee High. His grandfather, Willie McKelton, was the first pro player to come out of Pahokee back in 1972. Wiltavious dreams of going to Florida State (FSU), and plans on becoming a firefighter. Hierophany is his debut as an actor.

Roy Thompson Jr. - Taylor
Roy is from Pahokee, FL and like Wiltavious and Jean, he also plays for the Blue Devils. He dreams of playing pro football while continuing to act on the side. He also wants to design his own clothing line. His favorite actor is Chris Tucker. Hierophany is his debut as an actor.

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