Take a drive down No. 5 Road in Richmond, BC. One encounters a microcosm of the world in a small stretch of highway that runs from Starbucks to a doggy daycare. In between these staples of suburbia are roughly two dozen religious institutions. (More if one includes the Kingswood Pub.) Locals know this strip as the “Highway to Heaven” as communities of diverse faiths live side by side in harmony.
Director Sandra Ignagni brings her camera into the multitude of religious communities in her new NFB short doc Highway to Heaven: A Mosaic in One Mile. This observational doc simply takes in the day-to-day occurrences that happen on the strip. It witnesses Canadian multiculturalism in action, along with all the tensions it brings.
Like how Brett Story’s The Prison in Twelve Landscapes created a snapshot of the prison industrial complex without actually taking audiences inside the slammer, Ignagni’s film offers portraits of diverse faiths with limited screen time devoted to religious rituals themselves. These vignettes (or “visits,” as Ignagni calls them) offer little tiles of their own that form the film’s larger mosaic. The film inspires viewers to think more deeply about the changing landscape of their communities and environments, and give pause to the diverse experiences that live alongside one’s own.
Ignagni, who was born in Toronto but splits her time between BC and California, says that she was immediately taken by the cinematic character of the Highway to Heaven while passing through it in 2016. “I found it quite striking,” says Ignagni. “The buildings are very large and architecturally unique. They are located in very close proximity to one another.”
However, looking beyond the temples and churches, Ignagni recalls seeing worlds collide when two monks from the Thrangu Tibetan Buddhist Monastery strolled by. “They were wearing their traditional red robes and Converse-style high-top sneakers,” says Ignagni, evoking a scene worthy of Werner Herzog. “The monks walked past one of the many Christian churches on No. 5 Road and affixed to the church fence was a sign about Jesus. This meeting of old-world traditions and new-world commodities, along with the juxtaposition of multiple faiths, was the moment I conceived of the documentary.” From this image comes a multifaceted exploration of cultural and religious diversity in contemporary Canada.
Ignagni admits that gaining the trust of the many different communities was a long process. Following extensive research and consultation with scholars at UBC, the director says she simply approached her prospective subjects the old fashioned way by showing up at temples, mosques, churches, etc. with a business card in one hand and a pitch in the other. Ignagni says the involved six-month recruitment process helped winnow down the roster of subjects into a coherent film. (The doc has scenes in a dozen institutions.) She says it also prepared her for the sensitivity required when representing the unique landscape of each community.
“One thing that was helpful was showing the leaders of each community my last film, Ranger,” adds Ignagni. The 2016 doc, shot in a similar objective observational style as Highway to Heaven, took audiences inside the Canadian vessel M.V. Northern Ranger with methodical glimpses of the ship’s inner workings from the men and women in the belly of the boat to the hands at the helm. “I think once they saw the style of film I was interested in making, and the gentle approach I take in my work, it was a lot easier to build trust,” reflects Ignagni.
After gaining the trust of groups and securing their agreement to participate, Ignagni says that further negotiations shaped the shooting script with dos and don’ts to ensure respect and sensitivity. One example includes the participation of the local RCMP detachment, which might strike audiences as a surprise amidst the communities of the faithful. “There is a noticeable police presence on No. 5 Road,” observes Ignagni, as the RCMP detachment is located within the mosaic of religious institutions on the strip. “Through my conversations with the RCMP, I learned that in addition to their daily patrols, they do outreach with the schools. The officers suggested we film Police Week. They were planning a day where they would take policing vehicles or equipment onto the school grounds—helicopters and such.”
Ignagni says she avoided heavy-handed imagery that might pair children with equipment, which could be interpreted as attempts at recruitment, and instead turned her camera to the instances of work and play. These snippets accentuate the positive traits of the delicate ecosystem of the Highway to Heaven. The film features a scene of RCMP officers interacting with kids in a gymnasium, using their role as leaders in the community to build relationships with the young people through sport and play.
“To me, a scene in which police refereed a game could be read in many ways,” reflects Ignagni. “And given that my intention in making the film was to invite people into uneasy but necessary conversations around equality, sameness and difference, the hockey game seemed to be a good way for people to explore their own experience with policing.”
The scene arrives later in the film—about the time during the day in which students might be enjoying gym class or unwinding during recess. This tempo reflects the film’s snapshot of a random day in the life of the community. “I wanted to anchor the film in the idea of a single waking day,” explains Ignagni. “For that reason, it was important to document the early morning mediation of the Lingyen nuns at 2:45am. It’s the first stirring of activity on the road each day.”
Going into these sacred spaces and witnessing members of the community during moments in which they’re immersed in their faith requires further negotiations that ultimately shaped Ignagni’s style and approach. “The nuns have a very precise morning ritual and they only do it once,” says Ignagni. “There was no possibility of multiple takes or going back day after day. That would be disruptive to the community.” Being respectful of the nuns, and practitioners in other communities, means that many of them appear in profile, rather than shot head-on.
“Similarly, in the mosque, there were lines that my crew could not cross, so we had to get creative to keep the style consistent while working within these constraints,” explains Ignagni. “We even had one of the members of the Az-Zahraa community bring the camera into places we could not go.” Similarly, images of a bride at the Sikh Gurdwara give viewers a taste of the milestone ceremony for the woman, her family, and community, but the camera doesn’t enter the “Bride’s Room” with her. Staying outside door and seeing the bride exit the frame for this major life moment, the film gains a level of intimacy as one imagines the private ritual and shares the bride’s sense of anticipation.
One visit follows another as the film rhythmically builds its mosaic. This small stretch of road provides a microcosm of Canadian multiculturalism, but Ignagni says that understanding the geography of mainland BC—mountains on one side and an ocean on the other—is essential for grasping the context that makes this particular stretch of Canada so unique. “Over the last 50 years, Richmond has had an influx of new immigrants from countries where Christianity is not the dominant religion,” explains the director, noting how the fundamental human right to freedom of religion in Canada is one architect of the Highway to Heaven’s design while the city played its own hand in creating safe and accessible space.
“City councillors were essentially the architects of this road,” continues Ignagni. “They agreed to re-purpose agricultural land that had been designated for farming. They brokered a deal with religious groups, permitting the buildings under one qualification: that they farm. Religious organizations were told they could use the first third of the land for worship and build on it, and then use the back two-thirds for farming.” While these circumstances bring their own set of tensions between the diverse religious communities and the population of Richmond more broadly, Ignagni acknowledges that the contentiousness of these spaces is an everyday reality. The doc invites members of the community, both religious and secular, to enter the worlds of their neighbours. The film offers windows for understanding and empathy.
“I bring the audience inside these contentious spaces so that people see what really happens,” says Ignagni. “If you can see the beauty in your own everyday life and the everyday life of your neighbours—including things that are rather mundane—maybe it makes some of the tensions that come up in day-to-day life easier to manage.” The film provides an opportunity for Canadians to confront the everyday reality of xenophobia in this nation and learn the nuances of various distinct cultures that can easily be overlooked or misunderstood.
For Ignagni, who was raised in Catholic education but identifies as a feminist political economist, the film has been a spiritual transformation. “I never would have predicted the impact that this film would have upon my life,” says Ignagni. “ It opened my heart. I’m a kinder, softer, gentler person having spent so much time in commune with all of these different organizations. The truth is that we’re all on No. 5 Road in some way.”
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Note: A previous version of this story appeared on Sept. 9.