Mark Hanshaw doesn’t sound like a filmmaker. Instead of talking in sales pitches, this professor of religion at Texas Wesleyan University is happy to discuss how various religions’ mystical traditions recognize the holy spirit in each person. Yet a filmmaker he is, and an award-winning one as of last month, when his The Embrace of a Loving God: Encountering Sufism won the top award — the platinum “Remi” — at Houston’s WorldFest for best documentary short film. Pretty good for someone who’s just starting out.
The soft-spoken, 47-year-old Hanshaw hails from Oak Ridge, Tenn., but has lived in North Texas for 15 years. “It’s become my home,” he said.
After studying journalism and law at the University of Tennessee, he came to SMU to earn his doctorate in religious studies. “Religion is the foundation of all legal systems,” he said. “I found it fascinating in law school, and I wanted to pursue it.”
Texas Wesleyan contacted him about a professorship while he was still in the SMU program, and he soon found himself teaching courses in Fort Worth, including one about religion and cinema.
He became interested in making films after showing clips of movies to illustrate points in his lectures. “I saw the impact it had on my students,” he remembered. “I began exploring how to use visuals to illustrate concepts in the classroom.”
His first filmmaking effort, The Ritual of Life in India, played at WorldFest in 2011 and won a bronze Remi. “It was going to be a stand-alone effort,” he said. “But as I was piecing it together, I saw there was a great deal of potential.” That film now stands as the first of a seven-part series on religion.
The Embrace of a Loving God, which details the practices of Sufism (a more tolerant and mystical branch of Islam that includes the famous whirling Dervishes, whose dance is a form of religious ecstasy), is intended as the third chapter even though it’s his second film.
The films have been made with student crews, though Hanshaw cites the collaboration of Micah Brooks, a University of Santa Fe film graduate now studying at Wesleyan, as particularly valuable. Hanshaw’s former work as a reporter gave him some experience editing visual material and putting a story together, but learning to make films has involved “a lot of trial and error,” especially when it comes to taking students overseas. The Embrace of a Loving God contains some breathtaking overhead shots of the city of Konya, Turkey, which were taken from a hot air balloon for tourists. He estimates the cost of making the two films at $25,000 total, and while he’s done some traditional fund-raising through private donors, he points out that he has avoided some costs by using the university’s production studio and editing facilities. “Our president and provost have been tremendous,” he said. “We enjoy great institutional support.”
Hanshaw is currently back in India working on the next installment of his series, focusing on Hindu temple worship. Future chapters will take him to China, and KERA-TV has expressed interest in airing the series after their vice presidents watched The Embrace of a Loving God. He has his eye on promoting interfaith relations, but he mainly hopes to advance our understanding of the world.
“We focus on our differences, but the more you study religion, the more you see overlap,” he said. “Our religious systems aren’t alien from one another. Religion informs so much of our lives, even if we’re not religious. I feel so privileged to bring this to these students.”