Actress Vera Farmiga's directorial debut "Higher Ground" is an adaptation of "This Dark World: A story of Faith Found and Lost," Carolyn Briggs memoir focusing on her time in the '70s as a member of a group of fundamentalist Christian hippies who blended vegetarianism and born-again religiosity. It's not hard to imagine the project's appeal to Farmiga, who herself grew up as part of a rather strict Ukrainian Catholic community in New Jersey, where she didn’t learn English until she went to kindergarten.
"I grew up in a community, a very distinct community, as we all do—it's important stuff, communities," Farmiga told PopcornBiz. "And the search for self within those communities, you know? I grew up in a Ukrainian-Catholic Christian home, and so to me it felt very comfortable setting the story there, rather than Islam, as far as detail-gathering in my experiences and perceptions and the wisdom that I had retained, and who I am."
In discussing the film following its World Premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, however, Farmiga distanced the film from herself somewhat, saying that religion was only that setting that it could've been about golf or any other place where people find spirituality, and she remains steadfast in her determination to make clear that "High Ground" is not her own life.
"It's not a story about me, it's very much a story about Carolyn Briggs' experience and her search as a thoughtful seeker. I am able to bring my experience within the church, every church, or house of worship I've ever sat in on. People who have an immediate sense of what God means to them, I marvel at those people, I admire them. But as far as community goes… I don’t know how much to say about how it directly influenced the film…"
Listening to her trail off, start over, pause and stammer, it's clear she's trying to fend off admitting that this is a deeply personal film for her. When she finally cracks, she confesses, not unreasonably, that a relationship with God is not the sort of thing one should have with a stranger. In a roundabout way, she declares that is what her art is for.
"Yeah, on a molecular level, I struggle with my concept of god. And the yearning to understand that is even greater than… I'm not even sure; it's such an intensely private thing to talk about in interviews with people I hardly know. The power of the film is that people experience it in their own very receptive resonant ways—that's the power of the film. I can’t tell you anything about the film, as far as me and projections of my youth… I can tell you [that] within my upbringing, this community, there's a certain sense of identity and inherent in my identity is certain traits and characteristics that I develop as a storyteller, this particular story has been infused with those character traits. And I really do strive for compassion, I strive for openness, suppleness, vulnerability, kindness—it's really difficult to say how things have affected me or how it correlates to my upbringing.
But soon she's back to protesting too much.
"It's all very me, but the story's not me at all, but there's resonates with me on a deep level. And I think, above my approach was going to be the most important thing as a director. I often talk about choosing roles and [I stand] in defense of a character, defending that person, that woman and why she is the way she is, no matter what your preconceptions are of her case—I'm an advocate, like a court-appointed lawyer, you know? I'm rambling now…." She says before trailing off into laughter.
"Higher Ground" opens Friday, Aug. 26