On Saturday, October 21, a documentary on Damascene Gallery, the icon business of Priest Jonah Campbell, rector of Christ the Savior Church in Wayne, WV, had its U.S. premier at the American Museum of Natural History’s 2017 Margaret Mead Film Festival. The 16-minute documentary, entitled "Pixelating Holiness," is the work of Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, a Ph.D. candidate in Sociocultural Anthropology at New York University. It was screened as a double-feature on modernization in religion alongside Maayan Arad’s "Chomo," as part of the Activate: My Perspective showcase.
Ms. Riccardi-Swartz’s work focuses on the "relationship(s) among ethno-religious identity and materiality in Eastern Orthodoxy in the United States." According to her, the goal of "Pixelating Holiness" is to "activate viewers to think critically about the ever-evolving relationship between media and religion" by focusing on Fr. Jonah’s efforts to create high-quality digital reproductions of traditionally-painted icons and murals, while highlighting what it might mean for the growing Orthodox Christian community of Appalachia. The film features an interview with Fr. Jonah overlaid with scenes of icon production at the shop, and a presentation of the veneration of icons both within the church and at home, focusing on Christ the Savior Church and Fr. Jonah’s homestead respectively. The documentary is set to the æthereal hymnody sung by the brethren of the neighboring Holy Cross Monastery.
A Question & Answer session followed the premier, during which Ms. Riccardi-Swartz recalled how the documentary came to be: "I was interested in this community for my long-term research, because I think it’s just a fascinating area: the monastery that I’m also working on, which is associated with the parish that Fr. Jonah is in charge of, is the largest English-speaking Russian Orthodox monastery in the world. So, these are all male converts to Russian Orthodoxy who are English-speaking, under the auspices of the Russian Orthodox Church [Outside of Russia], which is a huge deal… So I sat down two years ago with Fr. Jonah, I had coffee at his house, and I knew instantly that that was the place where I needed to spend my time. There’s a story here: it’s about transnationalism, it’s about politics, it’s about regionalism, it’s more than just the material culture of his shop. There’s something here that’s bubbling to the surface that we see happening…"
Among the audience were the niece and assistant of Baroness Adé Béthune, a liturgical artist associated with Catholic “Servant of God” Dorothy Day and The Catholic Worker; and Professor Nadieszda Kizenko, Chair of the Department of History of the State University of New York at Albany. Of the documentary, Professor Kizenko noted that Ms. Riccardi-Swartz touched on topics discussed in Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" and N.P. Kondakov’s 1901 pamphlet The Current State of Russian Vernacular Iconography:
"What becomes of the theology of the icon when the icon is mass-produced? Can a mass-produced icon be ‘authentic’? Both Riccardi-Swartz and Fr. Jonah Campbell, the Appalachian priest who makes high-quality reproductions, face the question head-on. Certainly, an icon does not have to fit the standards of rigorists to inspire real prayer: St. Seraphim’s reverence for the Western-style ‘Tenderness’ Mother of God icon is perhaps the best-known example…"
Pixelating Holiness is the product of a joint program of NYU’s departments of Anthropology and Cinema Studies: Program in Culture and Media, headed by Dr. Pegi Vail, PhD, Associate Director at NYU’s Center for Media, Culture and History (known also for her role as one of the founders of the renowned first-person storytelling society The Moth). Riccardi-Swartz directed and edited the film, and her husband, Subdeacon Jeremy Swartz, served as her cameraperson. It had its soft premiere five months previous on Friday, May 12, at the Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Film Center at NYU alongside three other completed C&M documentaries, all of which were also chosen for screening at this year’s Margaret Mead Festival.
On October 30th it was announced that Pixelating Holiness was selected for inclusion in the Screen/Media/Art program of the Shifting States international anthropology conference at the University of Adelaide in South Australia this December. The four-day event brings together anthropologists from Australia, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and other member-states of the Commonwealth of Nations. Pixelating Holiness was one of only four student films chosen to be screened.
Ms. Riccardi-Swartz is currently in the midst of a twelve-month fieldwork study of the Orthodox community in Wayne, WV, to complete her doctorate at NYU. Of the experience and the community which she is observing, she states:
"Fr. Jonah… talks about how the Orthodox community [in West Virginia], both the monastery and the parish, have really impacted the economics of the area. Now that I’m there for field work, I’m with the parish every week doing the food pantry, doing outreach, I’m with the monks seeing how they outreach to the community around them, how they find jobs for people… So, they’re really impacting an area that is severely economically depressed, and they’re pushing for initiatives to get clean energy in the area, to get faster internet access so that people can have resources that they need… If I had more time, and I had the resources this year to make a long documentary, that’s what I’d be making it about."