How do free spirits endure a tyrannical technocratic order? Do they succumb to endless rules, or do they keep doing their own thing? And what is the spiritual price of totalitarianism?
These are the questions which seem to be guiding Gods of Their Own Religion, a dystopian movie written and directed by Naeem Mahmood, an award-winning film director whose previous work includes Brash Young Turks (2015), Gangster Kittens (2016), In2ruders (2018) and Queen of Diamonds (Short 2019).
Inspired by and shot during the 2020 lockdowns, the film depicts a group of young, disobedient London urbanites navigating a totalitarian safety-first new normal set sometime in the future, in which speaking, singing, and sex are considered unhygienic.
Just like the actual defiant raves and parties continued illegally despite the 2020 lockdown rules and resulting in thousands of fines given to young people in the UK, in the movie’s new abnormal, as Kid (Kyd Nereida) calls it, outlawed remnants of freedom and spontaneity persist.
Underground clubs attract rebellious performers, musicians and non-conformists who have now been labelled by the state as dangerous biohazard denialists who don’t believe that society has the right to mandate their behaviour in a crisis.
Kid, King (Ricki Hall) and Oracle (Michael Hagan) hang on to their anti-establishment natures with their individuality, fearlessness, and transgressions.
Each of the three tries to get on with their ordinary lives and retain their own uniqueness; Kid, with her seductive energy, dancing, singing and chameleon-like beautiful self-creation, King with his raw masculinity and fearlessness, and Oracle with his pure and deep spirituality.
They have not chosen to resist authoritarianism; they are just not able to give in.
Surrounded by the literally silent, obedient and masked majority, the outlaws face cold, hateful eyes and risk being caught wherever they go. Even in a bar, only the outlaws eat and talk. The obedient sit still, alone, all in separate fragmented realities. Whilst hanging on to their desire for freedom, the three non-conformists feel increasingly hunted by the surveillance state and their own growing fears.
When Kid reconnects with the enigmatic C2 (Christopher Chung), her childhood friend, we get to see what made the two characters follow such different paths. We see a glimpse of their school days saturated with the pedagogy of fear instilling the virtues of staying safe, alert and apart.
Now in his conformist, comfortable but lonely adult life, C2 respects his wife’s wishes to sleep in separate bedrooms for safety: ‘If you love me, you will keep your distance’, we hear her tell him.
Unlike Kid, C2 is torn between the two worlds. Their meeting brings them, and us, the viewers, some hope for a love-powered escape from this Orwellian tyranny.
This synopsis is only a surface reading of the film as so much more is told through the film’s dreamy and, at times, nightmarish atmosphere, exploring the play between deeper realities of light and darkness.
There is a recognisable David Lynch influence both in the soundscape and the visual effects with layers of symbolic and literal meanings. The surreal fever dream-like soundscape immerses us in an ocean of vibrations played by the unseen forces flowing imperceptibly between light and darkness, between beautiful, dreamy music and unsettling, eerie sounds, touching the viewer on a subconscious level (look out for the low vibrations hitting you in the gut!).
Mahmood is showing us that when freedom is under attack, some essential balance of life energy is disturbed, and dark forces corrupt us at a deep level. As viewers, we are moved between the real and the imaginary terror without respite, just like an alienated citizen of technocratic totalitarianism would struggle to find coherence in a world devoid of human bonds. Streets and urban spaces seem hostile and haunted by pulsating sounds of automated public announcements and instructions, a permanent reminder of a tight net of restrictions.
The masked, who have chosen security over freedom, blindly follow orders, defer to the cult-like technocratic authority and tune in obediently to the mantra of slogans, ‘re-imagine, re-design, re-build, re-balance the world’, a recognisable reference to Klaus Schwab’s words, which echoed throughout the Western world in 2020 in the sanitised version of ‘Build Back Better’.
Their zombie-like oppressive stillness, with cold and fear-filled eyes, embodies
the concept of mass formation explored by Mattias Desmet in his 2022 book ‘The Psychology of Totalitarianism’. They no longer have or need any agency; they appear en-masse, their only expression being religious, cult-like devotion to, and faith in, the state; their thoughts not only being controlled but perhaps even genetically modified.
As a relief to this at times overwhelmingly dark scenario, the authoritarian state is portrayed with a few grotesque characters such as Banker (Regan King), Politician (Simon Brandon), Chief Scientist (Brian Marks) and Supreme Court Judge (Lee Dee); the most prominent being The Technocrat.
Brilliantly played by Ewan Henderson, he is a syringe-wielding, crazed professor type, an unelected dictator, himself an altered human whose behaviour, gestures, voice, and aura suggest his power is granted to him through some Faustian covenant.
References to the unseen forces of darkness operating in this captured world permeate the whole movie through the soundscape as well as visually. There is a significant undercurrent of spiritual forces operating on both the cult members and the denialists.
Humanity is–always has been–navigating the pitfalls of evil, waiting to attack at times of vulnerability. Here, evil forces show up to feed off the cracks in the human spirit: when love, care, unity, creativity, togetherness and empathy fade and fear, anger, depression, deceit, and attacks on our nature take hold. These dark energies threaten to affect and distort the perception of all characters – no one is immune, not even when they entrust a religious figure of the Grand Mufti, his words, and a promise of a ritual fix.
Religion, like any institution, is vulnerable to corruption, to being hacked and re-imagined, aligning with those in power. The key to unlocking the forces of light is not obedience and a sacrifice of the individual for the common good, no matter how rationally or scientifically defined, but a release of the human spirit to dream, create, love and make mistakes within an imperfect but more or less organic social reality.
Yes, there are risks in disobedience and in defiance of authority, be it traditional, religious, or scientific, but when the rules are anti-human, anti-health, incoherent, and feel oppressive and stifling, a longing for freedom and creative acts are life mechanisms which unlock human potential and growth.
The tension between the safety of conformity and the danger of freedom is not always resolved in this movie, and that does not surprise me in 2023, just as it did not when the psychoanalyst Erick Fromm wrote his book ‘The Fear of Freedom’ in 1941, describing the mechanism of escaping the anxiety of freedom into the safety of (then Nazi) authoritarianism.
The themes of freedom, disobedience and creativity are articulated not just within the movie and its symbolic language of images and sounds but also in the way it came about. This is a film which had no budget, no script, and no permission. Concerned with the impact the lockdown had on people’s mental health, Naeem Mahmood was determined to make a film in 2020, irrespective of obstacles.
After publicising his intent, he was ridiculed and received hundreds of abusive messages. Just as the bizarre reality of lockdown regulations unfolded with the incoherent medical advice and irrational prohibitions, and as his own film community was being affected by the tightening of the authoritarian mindset, a sensation of dark forces hovering in the background became apparent to
With intimations of technocracy starting to emerge, Mahmood decided to let these
uncomfortable feelings work themselves into the movie through improvisation, without relying on a script and allowing the main characters and the plot to evolve organically.
The spontaneity was essential because he was recording the sense of oppression in early 2020 without understanding its origins or knowing its endpoint; he wanted to capture reality at an energetic, unseen level. The result was a full feature movie shot in 19 days with a total of around 160 people involved – all working without payment, having come together in a labour of love at a time of creative and
industry standstill. Not having permission meant needing to dodge real-life obstacles, including stopping the traffic to shoot a scene on a main road or sudden handling of a security guard enquiring why forty people were kneeling outside a public building in central London.
Asked, ‘What are you doing filming here?’
Mahmood replied without hesitation, ‘We’re filming for Black Lives Matter’… And it worked.
The making of the movie, as Mahmood told me when we met in the summer – was part of his personal awakening to what his creativity was always meant to be about. Having previously worked on projects which at times turned out, as he put it, ‘style over substance’, exploring the themes of darkness and light and a loss of freedom to an overreaching technocratic state at the time of lockdowns was a powerful personal experience of unlocking his own potential.
Making a full-feature film without a budget, a script, and improvising logistics, he was driven by an energy coming from the heart, an instinctive knowing of what is right. Somehow, all problems found their natural solutions and paths unfolded. At a time of working with intuitive improvisation, relying on dedication and collaborative creativity when the easiest option would have been to do nothing and remain silent, Mahmood’s ideas resonated with Rumi’s poem, which opens the film:
This place is a dream.
Only a sleeper
considers it real.
Then death comes like dawn,
and you wake up laughing
at what you thought was your grief.
The Gods of Their Own Religion is not just a film about freedom and defiance – it itself is an act of freedom and defiance. In telling a compelling story of an Orwellian battle for the human spirit, the movie tells us some fundamental truths about the importance of freedom.
It is spellbinding cinema.
Gods of Their Own Religion, directed by Naeem Mahmood is premiering on 23 November 2023 at Cineworld Leicester Square, London. You can follow the director on Twitter/X
Get tickets for the premiere HERE
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