It was a special year for UNO in 2014 with countless events, achievements, special guest visits and national recognitions for students, faculty, staff and alumni.
As one of the nation's leaders on research on the topic of the intersection of religion and film, UNO made history in April when it served as the host for the world's first conference dedicated to religion and film.
Dozens of scholars from around the world attended the three-day conference and plans are already underway for 2015's conference.
"On the Big Screen"
The following article appeared in the Fall 2014 issue of the UNO Magazine on the topic of Religion and Film. UNO Professor Bill Blizek is Among the World’s Foremost Authorities on Religion and Film.
Where is Christ to be found among Hobbits? Where is the Devil to be found in “The Matrix?” And what can “The Dark Night Rises” tell us about the human condition?
UNO Professor Bill Blizek knows.
For 20 years, the UNO professor of religious studies has brought his love for film into the classroom — and to the world. In 1997 Blizek launched the international Journal of Religion and Film, a rigorous exploration of religion in cinema, from Hollywood blockbusters to art films, shorts and documentaries.
Blizek — an atheist — says it’s impossible to escape religion’s influence.
“We all understand religion from a different perspective — sociologically, historical, philosophical and so on,” he says. “One of the ways we can understand religion is through film.”
That’s one of the reasons Blizek has been a regular at the Sundance Film Festival for nearly 15 years. His latest effort at the Robert Redford film-fest is to find a sponsor to fund a prize for “Best Film on Religion.”
Others are taking notice of Blizek’s work — worldwide. In April, Blizek launched the world’s first International Conference on Religion and Film, bringing two dozen scholars from numerous countries to UNO
to present research on what film can tell us about religion — and vice versa.
“There has never been anything like this before,” Blizek says. “There are sessions at the American Academy of Religion where they talk about religion and film … but this is the first time [a conference] has been devoted to religion and film.”
Visiting scholars presented their own work during the three-day conference, viewed several short films with strong religious elements, and heard from actress and director Tamara Feldman about her short film, “Resurrection Slope.”
The conference is an outgrowth of the successful Journal of Religion and Film, which Blizek began alongside fellow religious studies professor Ron Burk, who passed away in 2002.
“Ron and I heard a lecture by the priest, sociologist and author Andrew Greely about finding the faces of God in movies, and what we wanted to know was would we find those same faces or was this a personal description on his part,” Blizek says. “So we rented the movies … and lo and behold there they were. So we decided we would teach a class and … we discovered that there weren’t resources available — maybe one or two books. Now there are hundreds.”
Over the years, the Journal of Religion and Film has published scores of articles on films that cover nearly every genre, religion and language, including Oscar winners like “Slumdog Millionaire,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and even “Avatar.”
Such articles inspired Turkish professor Bilal Yourlmaz, who helped Blizek coordinate this year’s conference, to come to UNO as a visiting scholar.
“My decision to come to UNO depends on that journal,” Yourlmaz says. “I found many institutions — some in New York and some in Edinburgh and Australia — but I decided to come here because of that journal. I figured that if they have a journal it means they are taking this seriously.”
“Yourlmaz is the first religion and film scholar in Turkey’s history and one of only a few that exist in the country. The area is so new there that his proposed doctoral thesis on the topic confused his academic peers.
“They were like, ‘What? Religion and film? What is that? What do you want to do? That is not a Ph.D. thesis,’” Yourlmaz says. “And it was strange because one was a theology professor and one was a communication professor. But when I found the journal, and UNO, I was like, ‘OK, it is not a bad idea.’”
Now, after his work at this year’s International Religion and Film Conference, Yourlmaz is bringing the conference home to Marmara Üniversitesi in Istanbul.
“I want to invite more than 100 people,” Yourlmaz says. “I want to invite directors and filmmakers and talk with them about their films.”
Next year’s conference will accept paper submissions in Turkish as well as English. It’s slated for May 2015 and once again will be sponsored by the Journal of Religion and Film.
“It’s a little hard [for international scholars] to get to Omaha, and I think people from the states will go to Istanbul,” Blizek says. “We think we’ll have a good turnout there.”
Between the conference, the journal, and his yearly trips to the Sundance Film Festival, Blizek continues leading the charge in the field of film and religion. But new scholars like Yourlmaz, he says, will shape its future.
“I discuss religion and games, educational technologies in religion, and other topics, but when I talk about cinema and religion people are focused on me and they ask a lot of questions,” Yourlmaz says.
“I think this field will be so popular in 10 to 20 years.”