American Jedi, 2017.
Written and Directed by Laurent Malaquais.
American Jedi is a documentary film about three Star Wars fans who become candidates for knighthood and must confront the darkest issues from their past in order to be accepted into a real-life Jedi community.
There is a growing thought among the skeptic community that you cannot have violence without a religious belief. It developed out of numerous ideas pioneered within irreligious groups, the most notable one being that belief systems inherently create cults that in turn create brainwashed acolytes. Long-standing religions in the contemporary geopolitical atmosphere find themselves under heavy attack for their associations with inherently evil acts, no matter the importance of other factors, such as the growth of Islamic terrorism in the Middle East, the covering up of child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church, and the ethnic cleansing in Myanmar by radical Buddhists amongst others.
It is perhaps because of this influx in negative information that we turn a particularly harsh eye to any new religious movement that springs up in this day and age. Laurent Malaquais’s American Jedi examines one such cultural system that has grown since the early-2000s and revolves around a surprising thing: Jedis. The religion, called Jediism, takes its basis from the same concepts in the Star Wars Universe, creating a following that, according to statistics presented in the beginning of the film, numbers in the hundreds of thousands internationally.
Preconceived notions are one of the hardest things we, as human beings, have to overcome when presented with new information. No doubt recognizing this, Malaquais helps ease viewers into the world of Jediism through an introduction that presents several outsiders giving their honest opinion on the matter: some view it as admittedly interesting, others think it’s silly but harmless, and still others are outright hostile to it. In other words, Malaquais hits the nail on the head in terms of all the potential responses he knows Jediism will garner from audiences even remotely piqued by it.
Rather than follow this up with a typical documentary method of dropping viewers right in the middle of the world of its subject like Bruce Brown did in The Endless Summer, Malaquais goes a route very similar to Indie Game: The Movie wherein he depicts the journey of three very different people trying to become Jedi Knights, a top rank in the Jediism Order. This proves to be a good storytelling decision for a couple of reasons: one, it instantly dispels the prejudice that aspiring members of Jediism are stereotypical hikikomoris with no social life, and two, it develops this immediate notion that Jediism is not some fan cult in the same vein as “browncoats” or “bronies” (the latter of which were the subject of another documentary by Malaquais). The adults practicing it are intelligent human beings with flaws that see Jediism as a way of life and place of refuge from the toxicity of their everyday careers.
Throughout the 1.5 hour run time, the people in American Jedi frequently bring-up recurring themes of self-reflection, redemption, and acceptance in their personal tales. For example, Opie Macleod, the lead protagonist and a founder of Jediism, fell into alcoholism and social withdrawal after his wife cheated on him; Perris Cartwright, the deuteragonist, experienced physical and sexual abuse while enlisted in the US Marine Corp, and Michael Hannigan, the tritagonist, dealt with the death of his father and subsequent stumbling into a trolling lifestyle. All three express nothing more than a wish to become better people, and see Jediism as an opportunity to do that in addition to helping others.
The most fascinating decision on the part of Malaquais is his choice to not actually delve deep into the bureaucracy or history of Jediism. There are some bits of info tossed throughout the movie that viewers are more than welcome to piece together, but I personally feel this goes against the intentions of American Jedi, which is to let people experience what is essentially one week in this philosophy, see the kind of ideas it promotes, and observe the impact it is having on its participants and their peers.
Of course not everything about Jediism is good: its advocation of free love and subjugation of negative emotions like anger seem too generalized, and I would have liked to see Malaquais commit more time to exploring these aspects. Another critique to consider is the balancing of Jediism with the views of other religious figures: a Reverend and a Buddhist monk. The Reverend works because his dialogue is well integrated against whatever topic Malaquais is examining in that particular part of the movie. The monk, on the other hand, I personally did not think fit. Most of the time her dialogue feels oddly juxtaposed against the scene, sometimes hearkening back to themes that were already discussed, and there is something to be said about the filmmakers using Buddhism when Taoism/Daoism was the clear basis of the Force for George Lucas.
Overall, though, I left American Jedi feeling enlightened about the whole ordeal. While it isn’t a movement for me, I can now definitely see how it would appeal to arguably millions of people across the globe. Acceptance is a persisting motif in the movie: one that is shared by all the heroes as they disclose their dark history and attempt to move forward. And at the end of the day, that is all any one of us hoping for world peace can ask for.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★ ★ ★