A much welcomed returning DN alum, Director Ivan Olita continues to open our eyes to the interesting lives of others – as he’s done previously with The 1000 Days and Can’t Nobody Else Love You – with his new illuminating documentary Time Machine. An inside look at the spiritual community of Damanhur who built one of the largest and most controversial temples in modern Italian history, the film introduces us to Celastrina, a woman who left her old life behind to wholeheartedly pursue a cooperative existence in this self-sustainable society. We spoke to Ivan about his experiences documenting an alternative way of living in this collective dream made real.
You’ve been aware of Damanhur’s existence since you were a teenager, what prompted you to document it now and why did you choose Celastrina as your entry point into life there?
Since I’ve known about Damanhur for so long but never got a chance to spend some time in there the idea of documenting it was just the obvious choice when I realized I wanted to investigate the community. Celastrina was the most relatable character I could find. I wanted this doc to have some sort of relatability. Damanhur is such a magical place that I did not want to run the risk of portraying it as an entirely socially secluded and isolated community – something so ‘far out’ that it could not operate within the constraint of reality.
I liked the idea of showing that millennials are actually choosing to live there. People that have traveled the world like Celastrina are making moves towards this kind of reality and I think this is what allows for the film to address a broader discourse of the renewed attention that the youth has towards magic, esotherism, and nature in general. There are multiple layers to the idea of living in a self-sufficient community, and although Damanhur in itself is just enough of a ‘subject’, I think that when you position it into a broader context, that’s when you really open up the possibilities of understanding a bit more of it. Celastrina is our key to those possibilities.
I wanted this doc to have some sort of relatability.
Was there any resistance from the residents to your filming there?
I thought there would be some resistance at first but to be honest, once the residents understood that I was genuinely moved by the curiosity of knowing more about their way of life, I think they were okay to open their ‘pandora vase’ and share it with me. They have been the most welcoming and lovable people.
This is the third film in your trilogy of documentaries concerned with faith, what first inspired you to create a series of films around this subject?
I was born in Italy which is obviously a country rooted in the Catholic faith, but at the same time, I was partly raised by a Russian grandma that used to live with us when I was a kid. She was orthodox and very early on instilled in me this mad reverence for everything religious. At the same time she would criticize the ‘lazy’ approach Catholics have compared to the rigor of the Orthodox and I guess this exposed me very early on to the general understanding that there is one faith but many ways to interpret it. I started questioning myself: Is there a way that is better than the other? And why so? I guess the same question stuck with me till this day and although I absolutely believe no way is better than another, I’m deeply invested in trying to understand a bit more about how people connect to their divine dimension both socially and individually.
I found the ethos which seems to underpin the Damanhur community very alluring, was that a palpable feeling during your time there? Is this a community open to or actively seeking curious outsiders?
Absolutely! The Damhurian are very open and happy to welcome anyone for a long or short period of time. I’m not sure they are actively seeking as in “trying to evangelize people” or anything like that but I know they’ve created a program called “New Life” that allows you to try out the Damanhur lifestyle for a couple of months, at the end of which you can decide whether you want to stay longer or not…
Also – and I would definitely love to try it – they have an academy for Esoteric studies that you could go to for the length of the classes and I believe also apply online!
How did the energy and physical form of Damanhur, particularly the temple, influence your approach to filming?
The energy of the temple influences a lot of things. To say that it only affected my approach to filming would be a big understatement. You should go and try yourself. It is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced.
Given the intriguing richness of life in Damanhur this could have easily been a much longer film, why did you choose to work within the restrictions of a 6-minute running time?
I think that when you approach a subject such as Damanhur you have 2 choices: either you go “all in” and very deep into the story, its implications and everything around it or you just try to scratch the surface, to dust off a bit of the prejudices surrounding a spiritual community in a conventionally religious place like Italy. I approached the film in the latter way as the former would require years and years of study and commitment.
I could not go further than that; otherwise, I would have gotten lost.
I think this is not something you can contact half way. Either you have a taste of it (as I did) or the next step is straight into indigestion. There is a lot of information once you get there…it is overwhelming, and I definitely had to remind myself that I was just allowing for the gold underneath the dust to shine. I could not go further than that; otherwise, I would have gotten lost. This does not mean I don’t think about doing something longer in the future. But it would be an entirely different deal.
As always, you have several projects on the go at the moment, which one are we likely to see next?
I’ve recently finished a short poetic piece about the Uyuni Salt Flats in Bolivia. An ode to such a beautiful country and, in general, to the remoteness of such a desolated land and its immense energetic resource of power both spiritually and naturally (the Bolivian Salt Flats are the most significant lithium reserves in the whole world). I followed a salt worker that it is at the same time entirely disconnected from all the political implications of the Lithium reserve but also deeply rooted in the appreciation of the land and its symbiotic relationship with it.