Oh My God? : An interview with Filmmaker Peter Rodger


In every corner of the world, there’s one question that can never be definitively answered, yet stirs up equal parts passion, curiosity, self-reflection and often wild imagination: “What is God?”

Filmmaker Peter Rodger explores this profound, age-old query in the provocative non-fiction feature Oh My God? This visual odyssey travels the globe with a revealing lens examining the idea of God through the minds and eyes of various religions and cultures, everyday people, spiritual leaders and celebrities. His goal: to give the viewer the personal, visceral experience of some kind of reasonable, meaningful definition of one of the most used – some might say overused – words in most every language.

Rodger’s quest takes him from the United States to Africa, from the Middle East to the Far East, where such fundamental issues as: “Did God create man or did man create God?” “Is there one God for all religions?” and “If God exists, why does he allow so much suffering?” are explored in candid discussions with the various Christians, Catholics, Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists and even atheists the filmmaker meets along the way. But maybe it’s former Beatle Ringo Starr who sums it up best here when he simply says, “God is love.”

Rodger would like viewers to come away with a feeling of having an amazing journey – seeing places they would never see normally, hearing music that inspires and words that educate, bringing understanding and tolerance of other individuals that in turn richens their own existence. Oh My God? stars Hugh Jackman, Seal, Ringo Starr, Sir Bob Geldof, Princess Michael of Kent, David Copperfield and Jack Thompson.

Peter Rodger grew up looking through a camera lens. As a teenager, the award-winning British director honed his skills by assisting his father, George Rodger, the renowned photo-journalist and co-founder of Magnum Photos. After completing his education at England’s Maidstone College of Art, his skill with the lens made him one of the most sought-after talents in the advertising industry, shooting numerous car, clothing and cosmetics companies’ print and commercial campaigns in more than 40 different countries.

Peter has exhibited his fine art work all over the world and has won numerous awards for his filmed work, including several Telly Awards. Peter has penned seven screenplays, including: “Bystander,” to be shot in 2010; “Comfort of The Storm,” entering pre-production Autumn 2009; and “Publication Day,” which is in development.

After two-and-a-half years of filming across 23 countries, Peter has just completed producing and directing the epic non-fiction, documentary film entitled Oh My God? – which explores people’s diverse opinions and perceptions of God.

Filmmaker Peter Rodger
Filmmaker Peter Rodger

What was your inspiration for making your epic documentary film, Oh My God?
Peter Rodger:
I was frustrated with the childish schoolyard mentality that permeates this world – I call it the “My God Is Greater Than Your God” syndrome – where you have grown men flying airplanes into buildings shouting “God is Great” – where you have the leader of the free world telling the BBC in 2003 that he invaded Iraq because God told him to – where you have the constitution of a country (Iran) that dictates that its supreme leader is God’s representative on earth – where you have young men and women blowing themselves up (and innocent others) to buy a place into heaven. None of these concepts made any sense to me. Does it matter what I believe? Does it matter what you believe? And what is this entity that goes by the name of God, which seems to bring about so much friction, hurt and pain? I decided to go around the world and ask people what they think.

Why did you ask, ‘What is God?’ versus ‘Who is God?’ since most of us personalize God in some form or another?
I wanted to look at God as a concept and be as objective as possible. Referring to God as “who” is already putting the concept into the image of Man and therefore the objectivity becomes lost. I wanted to get as far away from preconceived ideas as possible to see what I would find. I felt that phrasing the question as “what is…” instead of “who is…” would make the interviewee immediately look at God from the outside-in rather than the inside-out, and thereby help quench preconceptions. I wanted the film to have a wide application and ultimately get to the question, “Did God create man, or did man create God?”

Did you set out with a goal in mind? Did you find a common theme in the answers you received?
My goal was to find out what “God” means to people, and to determine whether religion and religious people were causing all the world’s problems. There was such commonality in all the responses that at one point I didn’t even think I had a film. It was frustrating because all the answers seemed to be the same from all over the world. “God is everything…” “God is the creator…” “God is in the birds and the bees in the trees…” “God is the energy that binds us all together….” etc., etc. And then it occurred to me that if there are all these placid descriptions, why is there so much turmoil, upheaval and war in the name of God? I realized that the problem in the world may be what Man does with “God” – how he uses it to control other men, how he twists the preaching of its prophets to create politicized clubs that serve his narrow ends. When I realized that it was Man creating God in his own image, I knew I had a film.

What criterion were set in place for which countries you visited and interviewees you sought? Did you try to interview leaders such as the Dalai Lama or the Pope?
I had to have representation from as many diverse places as possible in order to capture as wide a spectrum of faith expressions as possible. You can’t, of course, make a film about who or what people think God is without going to the Holy Land. Indigenous cultures are also important, so Australia, the United States and Tribal Africa were a must. I wanted celebrities in the film to help navigate us through, so their geographical locations and schedules became a factor. Then Buddhists, Hindus, Christians, Muslims had to be represented somewhere, so that dictated India, Bali, Rome, Mexico, Morocco, Turkey, the Palestinian Territories, UK. I wanted the Mayans in there too, so Guatemala… Put all of that in a melting pot and I passed the buck over to American Express Platinum Travel and that’s how we made the schedule!

Most religious leaders turned us down – and I am very thankful that they did, because they are all “professional God people,” so all I would have gotten was politicized rhetoric and theology. The film is not about religion and its leaders. The film is about who or what people think God is. If I had the Dalai Lama in the film, I would’ve had to have the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, and then Ali Khamenei and other religious people and my film would be really, really boring.

 Ida Pedanda Gede Putra Telabah, His Honorable Hindu Bali Priest, Bali, Indonesia
Ida Pedanda Gede Putra Telabah, His Honorable Hindu Bali Priest, Bali, Indonesia

Is that why you decided to include so many everyday people and “man on the street” insights?
Yes, that is precisely the intent of the film – to find out what God means to the common man – not just professional God people, politicians and celebrities, but “normal” people.

How were you able to capture such personal insights about God and religion from so many notable celebrities?
I asked them one simple question: “What is God?” They did the rest. Then, based upon their answers, I would take it to the next level until we were yapping away. All of them were colorful and gracious and I am very grateful for the time and effort they contributed to the film.

Is it true you that encountered some difficulties when you first set out to make this film and almost gave it up?
My first trip in 2006 was to Morocco and I chose the same day to fly that the British terrorist plot to blow up planes with liquid explosives was foiled by Scotland Yard. I was flying out of LAX to Tangiers via Heathrow with all my camera equipment. Normally you take the important stuff as hand luggage – phone, camera, notes, lenses, computer, stock, etc., but this was the first day in aviation history that hand luggage was completely banned. We had to check everything into the hold and needless to say, I never saw my equipment, notes or toothbrush again. Because of the delay, however, I hit on a succession of events in which I was in the right place at the right time, something that would never have happened if I had started shooting two months earlier. In over 227 shooting days, I didn’t have a single weather problem. So I’ve come to believe that out of every negative there is a positive of exactly the same magnitude – maybe not exactly at the same time, but there always is one.

What moved or surprised you the most on your filmmaking journey?
How very small the world is. How similar all of us are and how blind most of us are to that fact. The similarities in belief systems transcend time and geographical boundaries and this was the case long before the birth of the telephone, the airplane and the internet. I was also moved by the enormous desire for peace on the part of both the Palestinians and the Israelis. It is very clear to me that it is the politicians who are messing that situation up. It doesn’t seem to be a conflict of religion at all. It is a conflict of land, politics and EMOTION.

Did you meet anyone who made a powerful spiritual impact on you?
Kanju Tanaka, the Zen master in Kyoto, was my favorite for inspiration. As soon as I walked into his temple, I had an unbelievable feeling. That temple is one of most peaceful places in Kyoto, and when he sat us down for tea I choked up. There was such a vibe! I want to go back and spend three weeks scraping his gravel. He made so much sense in so few words. The other guy I really liked was Sonkyo Takito. He’s the 105th superior priest of Shitennoji temple in Osaka. Those guys really did it for me. I was also moved by the generosity of the Indian people – the Hindus and the Sikhs especially – and also by the Maasai in Kenya, a wonderfully cultured group in their own simple way. Kind people with big skies.

Any personal spiritual insights from your journey?
That the natural human instinct within each one of us from the day we are born seems to be what the prophets would call, “Godliness.” It became very clear that this beautiful humanity does exist across the world and it is very unfortunate that human beings twist it to their own way of thinking in the name of God. I acquired the sense that we are much more united on this earth than divided. You only have to look into children’s eyes to see the spark of this “thing” that is common to all of us. It is the glue that binds us all together.

Speaking of children, the children in the cancer center you interviewed were extremely touching and profound. What made you decide to interview them?
Children seem to be vessels of what can be described as Godliness. I love the truth of children, the generosity of their spirits. I felt that the most accurate or inspired opinion on God could come from a child who is facing possible death. A young one who can’t be running around with friends today because he is lying in a hospital bed with a shaved head, in pain, vomiting and thinking whether he’s going to climb out of this predicament or not. What would his views on God be?

I learned so much from these children. Hanging out with them, I have to say, was one of the most harrowing and rewarding experiences of my life. The courage, the confidence, the wisdom and the grace that came out of those little people made me grow up a little more, made me learn a lot and made me thankful that my own children are healthy, that I am healthy, and that we really have no right to complain about our silly little things. When we bitch about someone else because they belong to a different “club” than we do, well, we’re just missing the point. And when I asked Christian, one of the children, what his biggest wish was, well, his answer – and I’m not going to give it away – let’s just say it blew me away.

Your worldwide premiere of the film took place at the Jerusalem International Film Festival. What was it like debuting in the Holy Land and what sort of response did you receive from the audience?
The response was phenomenal. Q/A sessions that were meant to be only 20 minutes wouldn’t end. It is such a charged place, the Holy Land, as far as God is concerned, that the audience really lapped up the global objective questioning that goes on in the film. Of course, there is a whole section in the film on the Israeli-Palestinian issue (it’s very difficult to make a film about what people think God is without including such a subject) so of course that section was under a lot of scrutiny. I am happy to say that none of the Palestinians I have shown the film to have been offended and no Israelis I have shown the film to have been offended. Phew! But the reaction was certainly charged. They embraced and loved the film there. It took us eight weeks to edit that section.

Did you encounter any danger in certain areas? For example, how were you able to capture insights from Muslim extremists?
Finding Muslim extremists to talk on camera was extremely hard, as you might imagine. In the end the best and most radical English-speaking gentleman came to me – quite by chance. I was shooting in a mosque – somewhere in the world that I don’t wish to divulge, and as I exited, he aggressively approached me and asked in very good English, “Are you Muslim?” I said I was not. Then he said, “Then what were you doing in the mosque?” I said I was filming, and why couldn’t I be in the mosque anyway? He said that non-Muslims were not allowed in the mosque, and that I should not be there. I said, “Really? Well you know what – I’d love to ask you some questions about this. Would it be possible to film you?” I told him what the film was about and surprisingly he agreed. I cancelled my afternoon shoot (I had a whole load of stuff lined up) and spent the rest of the day with him. He was very accommodating and spoke his mind.

Finding Muslim militant terrorists was tough indeed and took over a year. I had to go up into hidden areas of Kashmir and find them. I had help from powerful friends. Getting them to talk on camera with language barriers and the very charged nature of the questions was difficult. The point is, most of these extremists are just poor, ill-educated villagers that are promised better food, living conditions and support of their families – as well as salvation in the afterlife – if they join the Taliban or other extremist Jihadist groups.

Underneath it all, they are just scared human beings who are being brainwashed into carrying out evil acts. Their evil leaders are not going to talk on my camera – especially as I was a one-man-show, without a CNN or BBC behind me. What you did not see was behind my camera: I had about 17 armed guards with machine guns – my “escort.” So this was one of those moments.

We made it to the village and found the guys who were going to talk. I set up my camera and turned it on. Nothing. It was dead. Something was wrong with the power going from the battery to the camera. I was thinking, “Oh no, not here, not at this place, not today, not after all this work finding these guys. This is really bad.” I had a back-up power supply that I could run off a car battery, but I needed a cigarette lighter to plug it into and none of our transport had cigarette lighters. I shared this problem with all the very armed people around me, and soon we were off in the trucks with the terrorists into the local town. We dug out a man who was sleeping under a sheet of plastic. He turned out to be the local electrician, and I kid you not, within 20 minutes he had soldered a car battery with a cigarette lighter. We all piled into the trucks, plugged in the camera, and it worked!

Was I under any kind of danger on this trip? Yeah, all the time. But I never felt it. I just felt humanity.

What about the more day-to-day filmmaking problems such as transporting equipment, crowd control and such. How did you manage with a “skeleton” crew?
Very easily. There were two of us, but we had both shot many times around the world. We could sneak in and out of countries and no one would know we were making a theatrically releasable movie. Modern technology helped a lot. Furthermore, this was a documentary and there didn’t have to be continuity from scene to scene like in a drama, so that gave me enormous license to put people where the light was right, use the resources I had in front of my eyes rather than creating a scene to match the previous one. Our equipment fit into four bags. I still have a bad back from it.

Young monks in school at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh, North India
Young monks in school at the Hemis Monastery in Ladakh, North India

What did you personally take away from the making of Oh My God?
I really warmed up to the immense humanity and humor I found in people. Get the most vehemently radical militant face-to-face and even he, who has killed and maimed and blown people up in the name of God, could crack a joke. One-on-one he was not the animal he had once been in my mind and maybe still was.

I realized that we all have a responsibility to live our lives with tolerance and understanding for our fellow man. Don’t be barbaric and ignorant. Learn about different cultures and soon one realizes how very much the same we all are, that most barriers are of our own creation, that hostility is manufactured by power-seeking humans and has nothing to do with God. I learned that the world is way more united than divided, but most of us are conditioned to believe otherwise.

Most books are turned into films, however you have decided to write a book about your filmmaking experience. Can you tell us about that?
It’s one helluva story. It’s quite a journey and I kept a journal throughout. The quest was very hard and very surprising and the story has many components that are relevant in these difficult, polarized times. I wrote the first chapter and sent it off to a publisher and they loved the concept. Without sounding pompous, it really will be compelling reading and there is so much more to add. There are some extremely funny moments, too, that have to be shared.

The soundtrack is stunningly original, was it important to have an original soundtrack?
Absolutely. I was very fortunate to have a genius composer, Alexander van Bubenheim, who did a stunning job. He actually came as the sound man and other crew member for a significant part of the shoot. He would record weird sounds across the world – a witch’s door creaking in England, flowing water in Bali, feet in the rain in Tokyo – and then he would blend these sounds into the score. He would record drumming and singing and all sorts of things and then make tracks of them on his laptop while we were traveling. Then I would shoot footage that the music inspired. It was a great organic way to blend sound and vision.

This is your first feature documentary. How did your background in photography and commercials help you prepare for filmmaking?
I was blessed by having a great teacher – my father, George Rodger – who was a Life magazine war photojournalist and went on to found Magnum Photos with Robert Capa, Henri Cartier Bresson and Chim Seymour. He taught me how to see and about composition. Then I was blessed by working in advertising for many years directing TV commercials and doing print campaigns. Oh My God? is just an extension of that privileged education and experience.

What do you hope the viewer will take away from your film?
I would like the viewers to be ambassadors to the discussion the film creates. I would like viewers to be educated in the fact that we share this world with many diverse groups who are very much like we are and that the way forward is to understand our similarities and not obsess about those with different beliefs. If a viewer is religious, I would love them to take away from this film the desire to study their religion themselves, to understand their holy book and not rely on other human beings who might be manipulating the meanings of their scriptures. I would like viewers to come away exhilarated, with a feeling of having had an amazing journey and adventure with me, seeing places they would never see normally, hearing music that inspires and words that enlighten and fill them with love, understanding and tolerance toward the other individuals who share our planet. We are just primitive little organisms on a big rock in a scary vacuum driven by fear and desperately searching for something to hold onto.

Finally, I would like viewers to come away with the commitment that what they end up holding onto doesn’t push others away, that we are all in this together and that one club isn’t necessarily better than any other club. If we are to succeed in having a peaceful, fulfilling life we should listen to other cultures and learn from other people to enrich our existence on this wandering rock.

READ: Oh My God? A Perfect Film for this Time: A Review

Oh My God? is presented by Gussi S.A. & Mitropoulos Films and runs 1 hour, 38 minutes. The film runs December 4-10 at the Lagoon Cinema, 1320 Lagoon Ave., Minneapolis (612-825-6006).. Visit www.omgmovie.com.

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