Spirituality has always been a prominent part of the Star Wars universe, from Han Solo dismissing the force as a “hokey religion” in 1977, to more explicitly organized versions of the Jedi Order in 2016’s Rogue One and the most recent The Last Jedi.
That fictional worldview, however hokey, has spilled over into the real world. The 2001 Australian census famously found that more than 70,000 Aussies identified, religiously, as Jedi Knights (that same year, Canada recorded 20,000 of its own Jedi). You could be forgiven for dismissing that number as a wide-scale exercise in trolling, like voters identifying Deez Nuts as their favored candidate in an American presidential election. But Jediism is a very real phenomenon (although it's smaller in scale than these census results might suggest), and the Jedi aren’t kidding, as we can plainly see in American Jedi, now available on iTunes.
The new doc follows three aspiring Jedi as they work to earn a place in the community. These aren’t fans or cosplayers taking their geeky obsession to the next level, though. It’s immediately clear that their belief in Jediism is part of a deeper worldview and a genuine quest for answers and belonging.
The director of American Jedi, Laurent Malaquais, has experience with the intense communities that can form around pop-culture texts, having directed Bronies: The Extremely Unexpected Adult Fans of My Little Pony. As with bronies and Catholics, Jediism has its problematic elements. The overwhelmingly male leadership could learn a thing or two about systemic sexism and sexual violence, as revealed in their interactions with women Jedi. And the central character, Opie Macleod, searched for answers as a Methodist neo-Nazi before he invested in self-betterment through Jediism.
The film does dip into moments when you can’t help but laugh, sometimes uncomfortably—a real-world Sith, modeled after Star Wars villains like Darth Vader and the Emperor, purposely fucks with Macleod ’s life in what feels like an elaborate schoolyard game, only the game ends with Macleod’s very real marriage falling apart. VICE caught up with Malaquais to talk Jedi, religion, and the peculiarity of pop subcultures.
VICE: I had no idea that the Jedi census stats were anything more than a joke. What was it like delving into this very real religion?
Laurent Malaquais: I'd done Bronies. I thought that was a joke when I got involved with it. I went into that thinking, Where's the punchline? And no, these people were 100 percent real. And then I was making this film, thinking, Where's the joke? There's something funny and ironic about it—people finding spirituality in a movie or a TV show. And then I realized that, no, the joke is actually on the audience because these people are just like you and me. Most of these people grew up with religion, and they find that the philosophy of this TV show or this movie fills that need. It's awe-inspiring how people are basically defining their own sense of spirituality and religion.
I come at this from a position of not having grown up with religion. I guess I'd call myself agnostic. I see this underlying question: What’s the difference between following the way of the Jedi or a more traditional religion? Is it just that it's newer?
Yeah, wasn't everything Jesus was doing just pop culture of his day? He was the most exciting thing happening at the time. He was the counterculture.
At what point did you decide you wanted to go looking for these real-world Jedi?
Unlike you, I grew up with religion. My parents are French hippies that came to San Francisco, and I grew up very much in the spiritual supermarket, where you go shopping for God depending on whatever crisis you're feeling. In my life, I'm always searching for a sense of purpose. What is my raison d'être (reason for existence)? And I struggle with subscribing to any one dogmatic religious practice that excludes people. That was always a turnoff for me. After I did Bronies, I was blown away by how they use these tenets called the “elements of harmony” in order to better their lives and connect themselves to something greater than themselves, which in that case is community.
When I came across Jedi—by accident, just cruising around the internet—I thought, This is so ridiculous! And then it's like, Who doesn't love a Jedi? It's not this steep slope of being a Brony. It's a Jedi! They're warriors. They're seekers of spiritual truth, and they're exciting.
One of the things that I expected going in—I'm a big Star Wars fan myself—was that these would be hardcore Star Wars geeks, and I was surprised at how little anyone really talked about the movies. How much has this taken off as its own stand-alone thing?
I'd say it's taken off quite a bit. Macleod and a lot of the Jedi in the community are writing their own spiritual, philosophical doctrine based on this. I would say it's evolved, but at the same time, if you scratch at the surface, it all goes back to the code of the Jedi. So people have their own views on it, and they've interpreted how it works for them, but when people get into arguments, which they do, it all goes to the code. They've tweaked it, they've pontificated upon it, on and on and on. But it's forever chained to that code.
One of the funny things about Star Wars is how much it presents us with extremes. There's the light and the dark, and there's nothing else. There's nothing in between. You're either good or evil. Did you find things to be black and white with the people you met?
Yes and no. It runs the gamut. People talk about the Gray Jedi, so it's not so black and white. Depends what age you're dealing with, and how spiritually evolved people are. The Chicago Jedi talk about embracing your internal conflict, which is about dealing with the dark side. If you don't embrace it and acknowledge it, and come to terms with some of the darker feelings you have, that will lead you to the dark side, and will lead you to being a negative person. But they also embrace the idea of Sith. Where Jedi are more about the community, the Sith are completely self-centered. That's their path to bettering their world. They exist for what's good for them. What's good for them is good for everyone else. Whereas with Jedi, what's good for the community is what's good for me.
These are obviously eccentric people—people outside the mainstream. One of the things that I admired in the way you put the film together was that you didn't play that up. You don't ridicule them. You're not punching down. Was that always your plan, to go into this and treat this as a legitimate practice, or was that a product of interacting with these people?
That's an interesting question. At first, they were wary of anyone making a film about them—and they'd been approached many times. Journalists do articles on them, and they felt like they weren't portrayed in the way that they'd want to be portrayed, which is what it is. And they asked me if I was going to make a joke about it. I told them that I have a sense of humor, and I've worked on comedy shows, but the joke would be 15 minutes long, and you'd be bored. There's no joke in it for me because they're 100 percent serious.
What they're saying are the same things you and I believe on a daily basis. It's just in this strange pop-culture wrapper of the most successful film in the world. To me, it was way more interesting to just explore that. Let's just give it its voice. Let's see what that looks like.
You interview a number of experts and more mainstream religious figures. Did you feel that those people legitimized Jediism? Were they there to appease more cynical viewers?
I wasn't thinking that. I was thinking I wanted to give some body to it, some history. If people want to trash them and delegitimize it and be haters, I'm fine with that. That's totally legitimate. All I want to do is say, "Here's where it comes from. They didn't just create this out of thin air. They didn't create it by watching a movie a thousand times over."
You can still call it stupid, just like you can call any religion stupid. That's fair. But at least know what you're calling stupid and where it came from.
You cover some heavy shit. How important was that to the narrative?
Macleod was dealing with real issues. He had a Sith, funny enough, sleep with his wife. But any sort of marital infidelity and sense of betrayal, especially on that level, people kill themselves. Perris was raped in the military by her own platoon members—they call them “walking mattresses,” these women that are deployed in combat. For her to be this person who's trying to serve her country and be patriotic, who is treated like that, a lot of people don't emerge from that. And then we have a drug addict that could have easily ended up dead. You can say what you want, but I see this as a powerful thing that has allowed them to evolve and see hope and light and be better people.
What was your role as a filmmaker when these heavier, darker issues came up, like Macleod's history of neo-Nazism?
Most of my father's family ended up dying in Auschwitz; I have very little family because of it. My family was eradicated by real Nazis. I saw that as his troubled years. But the Macleod that I met is a completely different person today. I'm grateful I didn't meet him when he was in his bad years. Clearly, those aren’t his beliefs today. Had he not found Jediism, maybe he'd be running around with Breitbart. I don't know where he'd be.
Any major takeaways from the Jedi?
Macleod helped me get over a breakup. His whole thing was the tenets of being a Jedi or dealing with a difficult situation is that you have to fully accept something and then you have to decide how you feel about it. How you react to that situation determines whether you're light or dark, whether you're a Jedi or a Sith, or whether you're positively charged or negatively charged. And I found that I was, often in life, not fully accepting things—like there was always some level of denial about a situation. Accept it, and don't deny it or rationalize it as something else. Sit with those uncomfortable feelings. And then the next thing is to react. Look at how you react and be responsible for it.