The Filmmakers

The Director: Jean-Marc Abela


A self-taught filmmaker with 12 years of experience, Jean-Marc focuses his energies in documentary productions. His first passion is cinematography to which he offers his services as a director/cinematographer.

He has completed two independent feature documentaries. In “Shugendô Now” he explores our relationship to nature through a Japanese tradition. In “Diversidad” he follows a group of young adults who embark on a journey to discover their relationship to the food they eat.

His niche is the creation of positive and heartfelt films that seek to share solutions to the fundamentals problems of our society.  This comes from his conviction to play a part in the creation of a more ecological and just society. His quest will continue with his third film “This is what Cooperation Looks Like” where he will explore how coops allow for a much healthier business environment.

Jean-Marc has travelled around the world with his camera and through his explorations in film discovered a second passion in Permaculture, a science of sustainable design through the study of nature. He is gaining more experience as an educator and facilitator, giving workshops in video making and the Permaculture design process. He practices the Chinese art of Qi Gong and has produced instructional Qi Gong DVDs for two of his teachers.

you can see a selection of his work here:

Director’s Statement

There is a chant you will hear several times if you watch this film. It’s “Rokkon shojo, ” which can be translated as “Purify the six roots of perception.” This I believe summarizes the intention of the film “Shugendō Now.”I believe we are living in times of over-saturated media. Be it intense reality television shows caked with advertising or the billions of internet videos that showcase anything about everything or apocalyptic movies on the big screen that turn sacred knowledge to popcorn. Everywhere are attempts to divert get our attention to the next incredible whatever. I find this to be exciting and frightful at the same time. What are the opportunities to learn within this buzz of information? How do we integrate it all into our beings?

With this film we hope to offer something different. A film experience that cleanses the sensorial palate. Stories about individuals, families and institutions that highlight the extraordinary in the mundane. Through an esoteric tradition, we explore the universal and fundamental connection we all have with Nature. Like Henry David Thoreau once said: “All of Nature is doing her best each moment to make us well. She exists for no other end. Do not resist her.”

We present to you a film that doesn’t explain it but embodies it. Although many ideas are shared by the participants in the film, for us the most important is the heart connection we want to establish with the viewer. We want people to come out with a sense of peace and an open heart, with a desire to bathe in a waterfall, walk on a mountain or cook a good meal with friends. It brings us pleasure to present a film that doesn’t shock people with terrible news about our World, but a film that inspires the viewer to appreciate and be connected with the World that we’re terribly destroying, despite ourselves.

I thank you for your interest and hope you get a chance to view this film.

Jean-Marc Abela

The Producer: Mark Patrick McGuire

Midwestern born and raised, I first became aware of and intrigued by the storytelling power of the cinema in 1994 when I enrolled in the course Film as a Narrative Art with Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich at Davidson College in North Carolina. As an English major I took a concentration of courses in film analysis and production as well as creative writing. Not much of enduring value emerged, but a short documentary on a community of strippers (Choices, 1996, co-produced with Nathan Summerlin) permitted entry into the fascinating world of a Charlotte double-wide gentlemen’s club and gave a first taste of documentary storytelling. After graduation and three invigorating years teaching English and living in a tiny village in northeastern Japan, I began graduate school in Asian studies at Cornell University. I was deeply marked by the ethical questions and concerned by the great potential for harm that could and often did result from the practices of western filmmakers representing other cultures. Despite these misgivings, I hold out hope that cross-cultural encounters and the creation of compelling documentaries can be an ethical and even nourishing process.

When not staying up late editing, transcribing or translating footage, I spend as much time as possible with my partner and two young children. I teach Humanities at John Abbott College in Montréal, a wonderfully supportive and nurturing community of students and colleagues. Since 2005 I have taught courses on religious studies, Japanese culture and religions, documentary film and politics, north-south relations, and most recently, environmental ethics and campus sustainability. My teaching interests are all over the map but the core of what I try to do is increase awareness about the far-reaching consequences of daily choices (our ways of consuming, thinking, and habits of being in the world) and inspire young people to become more fully engaged citizens who take the responsibilities and rights of civic life more seriously. I volunteer at a dynamic, intergenerational meals-on-wheels organization with a rooftop garden and bike workshop, Santropol Roulant, and encourage everyone to become more informed about where our food comes from and maybe even grow some of your own.

Producer’s Statement: Taking responsibility for your representation

I have long been concerned about the ethical dimensions of representing other cultures. An anthropology professor named Robert Ascher introduced me to what he called “cameraless filmmaking” and gave a gripping introduction to classic and experimental ethnographic films. Since then I have been haunted by those creaky 16mm reels in his basement film lab: Under the Men’s Tree (J. & D. MacDougall, 1970) was a revelation. As were Night Cries: A Rural Tragedy (T. Moffatt, 1989), and Couple in a Cage (P. Heredia, 1989). Professor Ascher’s work involved a painstaking process of hand drawing individual film cells to produce provocative and beautiful ethnographic films. In his view, simply bringing a camera into another culture is an act of violence. I’m inclined to agree with him but do know examples where it need not necessarily be so.

You could say these deep ethical concerns were simmering as I moved through increasingly arcane though fascinating coursework and language study in graduate school. This was during the revelation of the Abu Ghraib torture images in 2003. Seeing Iraqi bodies distorted into a gruesome billboard for everything that had gone wrong during the US Occupation shocked and seared in my psyche the brutal domination of a people by the American military industrial complex. Research into Japan’s past felt self-indulgent and disconnected, but activist and writing projects juxtaposing the Japanese cases with ruptures closer to home helped keep what I was doing accessible, relevant, and in rare instances, transformative.

I had my first taste of ethnographic fieldwork in Japan in the summers of 2002 and 2003. It was during these initial encounters that I met several of the ascetic priests and lay people who appear in this film. I can remember asking, quite naively, at the reception desk of Kimpusen-ji temple,

“Are there any more real mountain ascetics (yamabushi) around here?”

In fact, there were. Many. Two hundred or so arrived the following day in their full regalia for the annual Frog Hop festival. It is a tribute to their unfailing generosity and kindness that they invited me to join them on the Lotus Ascent of Mount Ômine depicted in the film. I also met Tateishi Kōshō and spent a week at his rural training center The Forest of Mountain Learning. His creative reinvention of the tradition and environmental and social activism impressed me immensely. This encounter helped clarify for me what I had long hoped for: solid scholarship and activist engagement could coexist. In Kōshō’s company I learned to stop asking so many questions and instead simply walk the mountains, weed the rice fields, scrub the toilet. To listen and observe. I made a few rolls of slide film, took some field notes, drank a lot of sake, bathed daily in a waterfall, and continued to let all these thoughts and ideas simmer. It was wonderful. But it could also be dangerous at times—physically, emotionally, and politically—in the company of these powerful and charismatic practitioners.

In the summer of 2006 I met Jean-Marc on a rooftop garden in Montréal. I had recently begun teaching courses on documentary film at a public college there and volunteering at the garden. We began to discuss how it might make an interesting film to bring together his camera and cinematic storytelling skills and my Japanese language ability and experiences living and doing research in Japan. So in the summer of 2007 we met in Japan and got down to work. It has been a beautiful exchange and aside from my relationships with my partner and children, one of the most meaningful and fruitful learning experiences and collaborations I’ve had. Compared with academic research and writing, which can be solitary, even monastic experiences, filmmaking as we have experienced it has been interactive, collaborative and joyful.

Jean-Marc taught me to record sound and we simply got down to it, allowing the natural world of Southwestern Japan to become the star of the film. We wanted to present the raw experience of the climb from the perspective of the everyday man. This meant we had to try to make a film while doing everything the pilgrims were doing, without breaking ranks or getting in anyone’s way. Or worse, tumbling off the side of the mountain, which is a real danger and what I feared Jean-Marc would do while courageously climbing with his Steady Cam. We then retreated for three weeks at Tateishi Kōshō’s training center in Kumano to observe and document his daily activities. Here the word engagement seems more appropriate than retreat. Each evening Jean-Marc sat down to capture and select footage while I catalogued and summarized the audio recordings. The idea was to begin editing while the sounds and images were fresh; where we could still hear the roar of the cicadas and feel the relentless and bone-tiring humidity of Japan’s rainy season. Our fellow pilgrims and guides could also give feedback and let us know what they thought of what we had captured; whether we got it right or missed things entirely. Given that we worked well into the evening and arose most mornings at five for daily meditation, sleep came at a premium. Jean-Marc, as far as I could see, slept only during head-knocking car rides to the bee appeasements and prayer offerings.

I plunged into the project with the confidence of having a professional filmmaker, artist and friend at my side and a basic agreement with the late anthropologist Clifford Geertz that sooner or later you’ve got to stop the scholarly hand wringing and begin taking responsibility for your representation. Though with great reluctance and many concerns about not harming anyone or ourselves in the process, I eventually waded in, ponied up, and got down to work “making things out” (Geertz), hoping not to do too much “making things up.” Certainly we made and continue to make many mistakes. That which we have misconstrued and miscommunicated during the project has been impressive. I learned that being scolded by Gojô-san, the head abbott of Tonai-In in Yoshino, before 120 fellow pilgrims meant we were taken seriously and included.

I have struggled with trying to figure out just what we are doing with this film. Is it the work of a scholar? Artist? Activist? Cultural imperialist? Probably a little of each. Aren’t we supposed to be objective? Disinterested? Dispassionate? But if that’s true, then what do we do when we love the practices and places we study and the people we have met. If they inspire and challenge us on profound levels? Or worse, when we despise them or they us? (That happens far less, by the way.) I’m impressed by ascetic standouts Tanaka Riten, Gojō Ryōki, Hisagishi Shinsei, Tateishi Kōshō and the vibrant lives of engagement they lead. I want to share their work and ideas with as many as possible. Can there be room for appreciation and exuberance in this kind of filmmaking? Though mindful of the risks of doing what might be called poetic ethnography, we feel justified in our approach given how high the stakes are in this age of crisis and possibility: when each day a new batch of horrors and delights arrives on the front doorstep; when very few seem to be taking any responsibility at all for the state of our natural world, political, economic and social lives.

Jean-Marc and I are gratified audiences savor moments where we slide with co-participants toward rebirth down a waterfall imagined as the Tantric Womb. It was one of the most fun and meaningful moments for us, too. We hope viewers see that Shugendô practitioners do ritual ascetic practices in the 21st Century not because they are “superstitious,” or “group-oriented,” nor out of love of nation or emperor. They do them because it is enjoyable, challenging, and keeps them connected and human.

We hope you enjoy the film and companion discussion guide. Share it widely.

Mark Patrick McGuire
, Producer
Humanities / Campus Sustainability Initiative
John Abbott College


Director, Camera, Editor
Jean-Marc Abela

Producer, Research
Mark Patrick McGuire

Sound recording
Mark Patrick McGuire
Jean-Marc Abela

Sound design
Jean-Marc Abela
Tyler Fitzmaurice

Sound Mix
Tyler Fitzmaurice

Akané D’Orangeville
Luisa Gitanjali Jain

Narration Written by
Jean-Marc Abela
Mark Patrick McGuire

Additional Camera
Mark Patrick McGuire

Eric Grice

Poster Design
Neelan Rach

Executive Producers
Rotem Ayalon
Dahlia Aïsha Ayalon-McGuire

Translation to English
Mark Patrick McGuire

Translation to French
Julie Lanctôt

Translation to Spanish
Aïda Dessain

Translation assistance
Kyoko Iriye Selden
Sawahata Tamami

Narration Translated to Japanese
Mark Patrick McGuire

Narration Translated to French
Jean-François Martel

English translation of the Shozan Engi “Origins of Various Mountains”
Allan G. Grapard
“Flying Mountains and Walkers of Emptiness: Toward a Definition of Sacred Space in Japanese Religions.”
History of Religions 21 (1982): 195-221.

Modern Japanese translation
Mark Patrick McGuire

Classical Japanese source text
Miyata Noboru, ed., Jisha Engi. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1976.

Diamond & Womb World Mandala images
Heian period (859-880) mandalas in the collection of
Saiin, Kyōōgokuji (Tôji) in Kyoto.

Reproduced in Elizabeth ten Grotenhuis,
Japanese Mandalas: Representations of Sacred Geography.
Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1999 (plates 6 & 8)

Insights on Shugendô pilgrimage

Carmen Blacker
The Catalpa Bow: A Study in Shamanistic Practices in Japan
London: Allen & Unwin, 1975.

Paul L. Swanson
“Shugendô and the Yoshino-Kumano Pilgrimage: An Example of Mountain Pilgrimage,”
Monumenta Nipponica 36-1

Gratitude To All Participants:

(In order of Appearance)

Tateishi Kôshô
Inoue Ryô
Nakamura Seiichi
Nakamura Chiharu
Nakamura Hidemi
Nakamura Ayako
Tanaka Riten
Miyamoto Yasuhiko
Fujie Noritoshi
Ishiyama Miu
Sasai Tetsuya
Tamaki Sumako
Sakata Yutaka
Okuji Yumi
Iwasaki Hiroko
Hora Takako
Tateishi Maya
Tateishi Rika
Okuno Atsuko
Sasamoto Kazuya
Gojô Ryôki
Tani Hiroyuki
Suzuki Akiko
Furukawa Yoshiya
Yamashita Yûko
Yamashita Naruto
Ishimaru Mihoko
Yamagishi Hisako
Ozaki Hiroshi
Iwagishi Shinsei
Hirata Fumitaka
Yabunaka Isamu
Baba Shigefumi
Arimoto Gunji
Fujie Mirai
Fujie Akane
Fujie Shoko


written and performed by Manu Delago
Original recording available on

written and performed by Manu Delago
Original recording available on

written and performed by Manu Delago
Original recording available on

“Tibet For Peace Sanctuary”
written and performed by Nawang Khechog
Original recording available on
Tibet Universal Music Publishing

“The Flames Beyond the Cold Mountain”
written and performed by Mono
Original recording available on
Human Highway Records

“Songs of the Sirene”
written and performed by
Alessandra Luciano
from the album
Arpa Anima Voce

This film was made possible with generous support from


Fujita family
Okazaki family
Kawanishi family
Uchita family
Hiratsuka family
Kasuya family
Sawahata Tamami


Tanaka Riten, Kimpusen-ji Temple
Gojô Ryôki, Tonai-In Temple


Tateishi Kôshô
Tateishi Rika
Nakamura family
Sakata family
Tani Hiroyuki


Iwagishi Shinsei
Hirata Fumitaka
Miyamoto Yasuhiko
Fujie family
Morita family


Miyashita Hitoshi
Ozaki Hiroshi
Suzuki Akiko


Pablo Villegas
Mark Morgenstern
Melissa Curley
François Thibeault
Adam Thompson
Andrea Taylor
Stefan Verna
Nirah Shirazipour
Kory Goldberg
Bernard Abela
McGill Students in “Japanese Esoteric Buddhism,” winter 09
John Abbott students in “Documenting Myths,” winter 09
Moment Factory
Joanne Bobier


Zoran Kuzmanovich
Chris Alexander
Larissa Hohe


Carina Roth
Sandra Roth


Gaynor Sekimori

New South Wales

Frans Stiene
Bronwen Stiene

Chapel Hill

Barbara Ambros

Additional Funding by

John Abbott College Faculty Professional Development Committee (2007)
Cornell East Asia Program (summers 2002-2003)
Cornell Asian Religions Field (2001-2003)