What’s so special about Sedona, Arizona? And what does it have to do with mysticism and belief? If you can’t make the trip yourself, two young filmmakers want to show you.
In a recently launched Kickstarter for their upcoming documentary film Sedona: A Documentary Film, which they will produce with experienced multimedia producer Adam Isaak, Carrie Poppy and Brian Thompson explain why Sedona has captured their attention—and the attention of many others:
Sedona, Arizona has been the hub of all things mystical since it was first reported to be the site of special “energy fields” in the 1970s. Since then, new age practitioners and believers have flocked to the tiny town of 10,000 people, eager to start their lives over with renewed spiritual awareness (and maybe a tasteful geode or two). This film will explore the devoted residents of Sedona and the visitors who spend millions there every year to receive spiritual healing, witness UFOs, learn to bend spoons or read auras, and absorb the energy of the world-famous Sedona vortexes.
Both Poppy and Thompson have made a name for themselves exploring the kind of unexplained phenomenon that draws so many people to Sedona. Poppy, who writes a column for Skeptical Inquirer, co-hosts “Oh No, Ross and Carrie,” a popular podcast exploring seemingly unexplainable phenomenon. Among her many investigations for this podcast, Poppy spent 6 months undercover with a Mormon community—which inspired her to give a talk at a popular skeptical conference calling on skeptics to engage respectfully with believers—and nearly as long with a group of Raëlians. Thompson hosts a weekly talk show for AmateurScientist.org called “Quit It,” and he has written and produced many commercials for TV and radio. Both he and Poppy have been active in the American skeptics community for years, and both trained in comedy—Poppy at The Groundlings and Thompson at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre, both of which boast many famous alums.
So why exactly are these comedians headed to Sedona to make a movie about mysticism? How will they balance humor and sensitivity while exploring deeply held beliefs? What do they think about films like Religulous, or the American skeptics movement? Below is our Q&A.
Chris Stedman: Tell me a bit more about Sedona: A Documentary Film and why you decided to make it. What drew you to this subject?
Carrie Poppy: It’s a movie about a little town in the middle of the Arizona desert, where a psychic claimed that she had discovered six healing “energy vortexes” in the mountains there. That was just a few decades ago. Since then, new age practitioners have flocked there, from crystal healers to spoon benders and psychics, and people even claim it’s a regular landing site for UFOs. And yet, no one has told the official story of this unique place! Our film will showcase Sedona at its best and most bizarre, but it will also be about belief in general: how do we figure out what’s true? And are some things outside the realm of science?
Brian Thompson: I don’t remember where I first heard about Sedona, but it’s impossible to forget the place once you know it exists. A beautiful desert oasis full of people devoting their lives to fringe pursuits like UFO hunting, energy healing, and vortex bathing? Come on. The brochure writes itself. Listening to Carrie talk about [it] just sealed the deal. I had to go. And maybe bring a camera.
CS: You will be exploring some deeply cherished beliefs with this film, and likely challenging some. Do you worry about that? How do you plan to tackle the sensitive project of challenging people’s beliefs?
CP: I’m always thinking about this, and trying to do my best to balance honesty and respect. On [“Oh No, Ross and Carrie”] we question beliefs with every single episode, but we never do it to mock or belittle—and I hope that comes across. In fact, over the three years we’ve been hosting the show, I’ve often started investigating something with the expectation that it might not hold water, and ended up believing in it more than I would have predicted. Hypnotherapy is one example. The most important thing I do is help people understand each other. If we go in trying to prove each other wrong, we’ve failed one another as human beings.
BT: If you go into a project like this with a healthy amount of humanity and trust, I don’t think there’s much danger of ruining anyone’s life—or even their day—by challenging their beliefs. The people we plan to profile are the ones who are open and honest about the unusual things they believe. They may be pretty colorful, but we’re not there to make fun of them. We like people, and we want to understand why they believe the things they do and to take part in the experiences in which they invite us to take part. We may all come to different conclusions in the end, but we also have to trust each other to handle opposing views. It doesn’t mean we like or respect each other any less.
CS: That’s a lovely way to approach this work, but it does seem like a fine line to walk. This conversation makes me think of Bill Maher’s documentary film Religulous, which seemed to seek out the most absurd expressions of religious belief for the sole purpose of mocking believers. What did you think of that film, and how will yours differ—or not—from it?
CP: I’ll be honest. When that film first came out, I liked it. But I was also a new deconvert away from evangelical Christianity, and I was happy to see my old beliefs kicked around a little. Just a few years later, I don’t have any need to see other people’s beliefs belittled. It’s fine to use humor to question an unusual claim, but it’s quite another thing to act like a guy who owns an angel store is ruining the world. I hope our film will be more like Trekkies or Jon Ronson’s web series Escape and Control: funny and kind.
BT: Our film will differ from Religulous in that we’ll be seeking out the people who are most interesting, not necessarily the most mockable. And instead of smarmy, our film will be funny.
CS: Carrie, you’ve been a vocal supporter of interfaith cooperation. Do you plan to engage people of faith with this film?
CP: Of course! Your question implies that I am not a person of faith, but I am. I have faith in humanity, for example, sometimes against the evidence. I think we all are doing the best we have, with the information we have. I used to believe in chakras, psychic abilities, angels, and a lot of the other things that many Sedonans believe in. Brian used to be a big UFO believer. We have a lot of respect for people who are seeking answers, even if we’ve come to different ones ourselves.
BT: My name isn’t Carrie.
CS: Both of you have been very active in the American skeptics movement. How do you think self-identified skeptics will respond to this film? Do you think they will be the primary audience?
CP: I was a part of it for a couple of years, but I think the skeptical movement in the U.S. can sometimes be mean-spirited, focusing more on proving that some people are right and others are wrong. That shouldn’t ever be the point. The point should be helping people, and understanding each other. Many people who listen to my show and read my column consider themselves skeptics, and I think that’s great, so long as they appreciate my approach. So, I think “skeptics” who are looking for a film that leaves them feeling victorious over credulous believers will walk away disappointed. That said, we will absolutely look at the evidence for these beliefs, and be honest about it. If there’s no evidence for an alternative cancer treatment being sold in Sedona, we will not hesitate to highlight that, and ask the vendors the hard questions. Anyone who is open to honest dialogue, believer or skeptic, should appreciate it.
BT: I hope skeptics aren’t our primary audience. We will have failed if our movie isn’t just as entertaining for a die-hard believer in crystal healing as it is for a trained laboratory scientist. We want to make a good movie, not propaganda for one side or another. I’m generally skeptical of the truth behind a lot of the fringe beliefs so prevalent in Sedona, but if anything that makes me more curious to get to know the people behind those beliefs.
CS: You’re both comedians. How will that factor into your approach to this serious subject?
CP: I think comedy is the best way to approach a serious subject. It’s disarming for both sides of a debate, if you can find something you can both laugh about. A lot of the humor in this film will probably be at my expense, as I try to navigate a spirit circle or chant my migraines away. Those are made-up examples, though. Comedy works best when it’s spontaneous and honest. If there’s nothing to laugh at in a particular setting, we won’t force it. Our foremost concern is being good filmmakers and journalists, not making a cheap joke.
BT: Well, I just don’t draw a line between serious subjects and funny subjects. There’s humor in everything, and knowing a thing or two about comedy will inform our decisions about how to navigate and present that humor. I think both of us know the difference between a joke about someone and a joke at the expense of someone, for example.
CS: You’re currently raising money for the production costs of this film via Kickstarter. Why do you think people reading this interview should donate?
CP: Kickstarter would be ashamed of you that you used the word donate! It’s “back” or “pledge”! The cool thing about Kickstarter is, you’re not just sending money into a void; you get something back. For example, when people pledge $25, they get a copy of the DVD, and a piece of quartz that’s been lugged up to one of the vortexes (that supposedly makes it soak up the healing energy). So you’re not just supporting independent art, or interfaith understanding, or science, but also getting something unique that can only come from Sedona. But most importantly, if you want to see this film made, backing it gives us the resources to get it done. If we don’t raise $20,000 by January 1st, the project won’t happen. And then you will live in a vortex of sad.
BT: No one else has made a full-length documentary feature about the weird and wonderful world of Sedona, which is crazy to me. But Carrie, Adam Isaak, and I have a unique mix of expertise to make this a movie that won’t just fill a niche, but will also be funny, insightful, beautiful, and well worth the time and money our audience and backers put into it. Our only goal is to make the best movie about the best subject we possibly can, and that won’t happen without financial help.