Thesp Michael O’Keefe debuts as a helmer with “Raising the Ashes.” Documenting a five-day interfaith retreat at Auschwitz, pic applies little fresh insight or artistry to subject’s exploration. It does, however, add a queasily self-congratulatory, New Age agenda that will further limit exposure to educational or other venues.
Organized by U.S.-based Zen master Roshie Bernie Glassman, the event gathered together 150 people of various religious affiliations — Buddhist as well as Jewish, Christian and Muslim. Their intent was a “healing” of poisonous geographical history and space. A few attendees were descended from camp survivors or onetime Nazis; others are simply empathetic. Pic’s midsection leans heavily on talking-head interviews with participants.
While this kind of personal coming-to-terms is admirable from a distance, the solemn public gravity lent it by O’Keefe’s camera (and frequent on-camera presence) inevitably creates a certain fatuous, navel-gazing tenor — especially when atrocity footage is intercut with shots of the privileged visitors, who fade in from B&W to color as if “reliving” prior occupants’ experience.
The most questionable sequence juggles a hyperbolic montage of burning corpses against O’Keefe’s very actorish reading of a poem by a camp survivor. While such sequences may be well intended, their effect hews dangerously close to self-serving trivialization. (Soundtrack use of rock songs by Neil Young and Patti Smith also strikes a less-than-dignified chord in this thematic context.)
Shot on vid, then transferred to 16mm, tech package is routine at best. The “very good energy” newly bestowed upon Auschwitz herein grows more back-pattingly discomfiting as the short feature progresses. “Raising the Ashes” might as well be about an est seminar, for all its unblinking focus on “personal growth.”