I am recently back from Stockholm, Sweden where the long-awaited film “Leaving Jesus” was released at last, after 6 years of both working on the film and going through a pandemic delay.

Marlene & Ellen

This is a documentary made by the renowned Swedish filmmaker Ellen Fisk about my Journey Free retreats.

It is primarily set in San Francisco, but then follows a number of characters to their hometowns as their stories are told.

 

 

The synopsis written for the Cannes Film Festival describes it:

A group of Christian ex-fundamentalists gather at Journey Free retreat in San Francisco. Lost and with traumatic experiences they attempt to free themselves from their fundamental communities that they were born into. But how does one find meaning, identity and a moral compass in our frantic world, while at the same time having to question your closest friends and the truths you once took for granted?

Here is a film review from the Göteborg Film Festival 2024 where the film was first seen:

Religion, what a thing, huh? An easy thing to pick apart and critizise, yet I’ve—even though I guess I’m an atheist, or at best agnostic—always found it difficult to completely dismiss religion as something wholly negative. I truly believe there’s beauty to be found in religion and the way it can offer consolation and a supportive community for many people. However, as LEAVING JESUS very much shows, said community can also become something very, very destructive.

This documentary centers on a retreat for people leaving a fundamentalist community behind and through its fascinating cast of people, we get to experience many harrowing stories of how the religious community has become a prison for them. So given this, there’s also something so beautiful to see these people find a new community, finding solace and comfort in each other and their shared traumas.

LEAVING JESUS is a good example of the worst sides of organized religion, but it’s also a beautiful reminder of the importance of community and collective strength.

It’s also just a tremendously well-made documentary. I’ve always had a soft-spot for the northwestern part of the U.S. and LEAVING JESUS offers some gorgeous imagery, mixed with very intimate and effective depictions of the meetings. We don’t get to know each person at great depth, but the cast of people here is fantastic and it’s admirable to see the film let the laughter seep through at times.

Emotionally gutting, LEAVING JESUS remains an incredibly balanced documentary, because for all the tears it provides, it ultimately ends in the beauty of seeing these people leave their trauma behind.

And from Variety:

“Leaving Jesus” is the latest doc by Ellen Fiske, whose debut feature “Scheme Birds” picked up both best documentary feature and best new documentary director awards at Tribeca in 2019.

It follows a group of Christian ex-fundamentalists as they gather at a retreat in San Francisco and try to free themselves from the communities they were born into.

“I grew up in a fundamentalist atheist family,” Fiske said, “and I always felt I lack religion and spirituality. I have had constant fear of death since the age of eight and an urge to find the deeper meaning of life.”

“The core for them is finding self-love and finding out who they are, because everything in their lives has been about their faith: they were supposed to be a channel in the service of God, and when they lose that all they have left is an empty shell,” said Fiske, who underlined that her film is not about “criticizing religion but about faith.”

On April 24, “Leaving Jesus” premiered at its first theater in Stockholm and about 20 people from the U.S. traveled there to be part of the celebration:

Janice & Paul

It was tremendously exciting to see it on a big screen and with an appreciative audience. The stories are very moving, so most of the audience cried, including all of us. And aside from the content, the cinematography is gorgeous and the music is powerful. Afterward we all went on stage with the producer and director, cinematographer, and composer and got a standing ovation! From the cast of the film, we had Jeff, Paul, Isabel, Janice, Kari, Lindsey, Lorena, Dan and Marlene.

Kari and I gave short speeches, which you can view here.

Most of us stayed in Sweden for about a week, attending several more screenings at other theaters in the area and participating in Q&A sessions. It was fascinating to discuss with audiences. Most attendees were not formerly religious themselves (although some were) but were very interested in the role of religion in America. On one day, about 8 of us were interviewed for a local podcast. We also got a chance to be tourists, visiting the Viking Museum, the Abba Museum (!), and the Paradox Museum, going on a cruise through the Stockholm islands (an archipelago of 3500 islands), seeing Old Town, eating Swedish meatballs, and meeting a lot of warm, wonderful Swedish people. On one night out together at a restaurant, it was my birthday, and the group surprised me with singing and a “Princess cake,” a delicious Swedish specialty.

“Leaving Jesus” will be coming to the U.S. at some point, beginning with festivals.

In the meantime, you can view the trailer here:

…and see relevant websites here:
https://www.imdb.com/title/tt20446358/
https://www.marchedufilm.com/projects/leaving-jesus/
https://mubi.com/en/us/films/leaving-jesus
https://program.goteborgfilmfestival.se/en/program/leaving-jesus
https://nordiskfilmogtvfond.com/news/trailer/leaving-jesus
https://letterboxd.com/film/leaving-jesus/
https://variety.com/2022/film/global/scandinavia-cannes-docs-1235274562/

We hope to see you at a screening near you some day!


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